Monday, January 2, 2012

A Good Pagan Film (Spoiler alert: B.S. Abounds)

Every few years a movie comes out that supposedly has a 'pagan' theme, a 'pagan' main character, a 'pagan' message, or something else completely and totally 'pagan.' These movies make the rounds of the Big Bad Pagan Blogs - the ones that hunt wildly for daily pagan news that's actually of any importance or juggle cultural happenings, attempting to spin them into something tangentially pagan. We, as the folks that read blogs and listen to podcasts and generally have an extension of our pagan lives online, are spoon fed that this movie or that movie is THE pagan movie of the year.

Now, before I go further, I have to say... When I hear that a movie has magic or witches or faeries or possession or is anywhere remotely centered upon one of my spiritual interests, my ears perk up. So, this is not a post that is talking against the idea of pagans, witchy folk, or otherwise spiritual people wanting to watch movies about spiritual things. That would be silly on my part, as we are all allowed to watch what interests us and should watch what interests us.

My beef is this: Why do we insist on propping up films that show "pagans" in the absolute worst light possible, and label them 'really good' or 'the best' or 'depicting a society I'd like to live in.' The first movie that comes to mind is The Wicker Man. Either version, though it seems to me (and this might just be my personal experience existing in the pagan community) the greater pagan community adores the original.

Why pagans say they love this movie:
It features a society of people that live off the land, eschewing most modern conveniences. They have the kind of ideas of sexuality that pagans like to say they have around Beltane. The little island society seems to celebrate a wheel of the year style festival calendar, and they like to talk about 'old religions' and 'the old ways' and talk about methods of ritual and magic and living in harmony with the gods and the land.

This was the version that I was fed for years. OMGs!! You MUST see The Wicker Man! You absolutely must! I've never seen a movie that more correctly explained what it's like to be a neo-pagan until I saw The Wicker Man! This movie made so many things click for me! WICKERMANWICKERMANWICKERMAN!!! So, I finally saw said Wicker Man film. I actually bought said Wicker Man film in a $4 movie bin at the electronics store with the blue polos and big yellow tags. I asked all the folks on Twitter, "Hey, should I buy this movie?" I got a resounding ABSOLUTELY! IT'S SO AMAZING!!!!

Let me break down what this move is actually about. In the sake of fairness, here is your *SPOILER ALERT*. Yes, for most of the movie, it looks like a bunch of folks who've moved off to an island and begun a modern pagan society, which means they've tried their damnedest to be as non-modern and live as much in the mid to late 1800s as humanly possible. Parts of me like the idea of going off and living close to nature, and then I remember words like "running hot and cold water" and "antibiotics" and "air conditioning." Not to mention little things like cars and airplanes and the ability to call for help if I'm stranded in the middle of nowhere. I digress. What the movie ends up being about is the fact that this society of people has lured the protagonist to the island with the specific purpose of using him as a human sacrifice. Which they do. Without remorse or regret or even the thought that what they're doing is wrong. The "pagans" are brainwashed members of a psychotic man's cult that have a single hive-mind, which is an extension of being the histrionic cult leader's yes-men/women.

This is what we tout as one of the best, the most accurate, the greatest pagan films of all time. A movie about violent "pagans" who are so wildly off-base and out of their mind that they have no remorse about human sacrifice in the modern day. Any clinical psychologist would deem this sociopathic behavior, and it only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes in the eyes of the academic community that when someone calls themselves 'pagan', they're a little off their rocker.

In the last year or two, though, we've ramped up our search for great pagan films. With the speed at which studios are producing historical flicks - searching for the next hit in an ocean of misses - pagan talking heads are vibrating in spasmodic glee over films like Agora, The Eagle, Centurion, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Black Death, Immortals, Clash of the Titans, Thor, and Avatar. There are at least a dozen more, but I have heard these mentioned over and over and over again.

I would like to briefly summarize why each of these fails in the "ZOMGs! This is the GREATEST PAGAN MOVIE OF ALL TIME!!!!" category:

  • Agora - Everyone keeps talking about this as a pagan film, as a historical near-documentary of the loss of one of the biggest and best gatherings of pagan literature possibly ever assembled. The big fail here is that Hypatia, the main character, is an atheist. The movie paints the polytheistic Romans and the monotheistic Christians in equally terrible lights. Also, the film has been panned by many historians and experts as having taken pretty severe artistic license with just about every aspect of the film. In short, it is not a movie about the terrible Christians coming down and overturning the brilliant polytheistic pagan peoples of yore. It's a movie about two fanatical groups of people trying to wrench power from one another. This is as much about pagans as The Wizard of Oz is about the munchkins. 
  • The Eagle - This movie is about a guy (the uber-sexy Channing Tatum) trying to restore his family's honor. This movie is actually about the same disappearing company of Roman soldiers as the film Centurion, just set later on in history. Yes, it's about ancient Romans, so, I suppose, it can be called a 'pagan' film. That, however, is like calling Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett a Christian film. Just because the protagonist's religious beliefs are polytheistic, doesn't mean the film is espousing any sort of pagan ideology. Partner and I actually very much enjoyed this film, but only because we tend to enjoy manly adventure movies in the vein of Braveheart, Robin Hood, and The Patriot. 
  • Centurion - Again, this was about a group of Roman soldiers making a mad dash out of harm's way and back to safety. It's a chase movie. There's no magic. There's no espousing of religion. In fact, everyone involved is pagan in some kind of way. So, it's not even a "pagans are better than Christians" movie, like many on this list are spun to be (Agora, Black Death, etc.). There are evil pagans and good pagans and all sorts of different pagans. However, their beliefs and practices and anything even remotely about being pagan has absolutely NOTHING to do with this movie. 
  • Percy Jackson & Harry Potter - I'd just like to say this: If you can wave your wand and make things fly through the air, if you can call your parent up and show off some water-manipulating powers, if you can do any of the things depicted in any of these movies, I will call them pagan movies. Until then, folks, it's fiction. It's fun. It's enjoyable. But, folks, it's fiction. If this is an example of paganism in Hollywood by dint of calling the protagonists witches, wizards, demigods, etc., then we need to have a sit down and figure out what version of nuts you are. This isn't real. It's fun. It's enjoyable! I love the books, too! I own Percy Jackson on BluRay! But, it's not pagan, because it has nothing to do with what actual neo-pagans do. At. All.
  • Immortals/Clash of the Titans/Thor - These quite possibly should have been lumped in with the Percy/Harry bullet point. The pagan community both loves these movies and hates these  movies. The community is livid that they didn't get the history or the mythology or the characterizations correct. There seems to be a rapturous joy at seeing the names of old gods mentioned in a movie, but then there is this rage at seeing one of the Norse gods played by a black man, or the greek gods depicted as pitiless vampires feeding off human love, or Mickey Rourke. Like I said in the Percy/Harry point, this is fiction. It's a movie. It's a retelling of a story in a big budget, Hollywood way. I very much enjoyed these films, and I own two of the three of them. (And will own the third when it becomes available.) 
  • Avatar - This is not a pagan film. It's cool. But, gosh...just see the above points. Or my review of Avatar. If you ever become a 10 foot tall blue person with a braid of hair that can plug into both plants and animals...then we'll talk. 
  • Black Death - The final film in the pagan spin zone. This one actually seems to be loved for the same reasons as The Wicker Man. It's also bullshit for the same reason as the Wicker Man. The juggled spin is that this movie is about fanatical Christians coming to rape and pillage and destroy a peace-loving, herb-using, Celtic society helmed by a priestess/witch that is a noted healer and goodly woman. Oh, except, like The Wicker Man, this group of people would also like to kill every single Christian out there in as brutal a manner as is possible. Those that they offer salvation, if they will renounce Christianity and join their society that worships an "Unholy Trinity", are taken out back and killed, too. That's not exactly the idea I think we're going for. 
If you're looking to Hollywood to portray your spiritual beliefs in an accurate, graceful, true manner, then you need to reevaluate your spirituality. You should be strong enough in your faith that you do not need Hollywood to tell you all about it. Get mad at the History or Biography channels for historically inaccurate information, as they are purporting to be historically accurate.

Many of these films have a "Christians agains Pagans" spin, that isn't actually upheld when you watch the movie. I have to wonder why we want to either a) appear to be simpering victims all the time or b) as maniacal Christian killers.

There's no moral to this story. I'm seriously confused here. I have no clue as to why we keep doing this to ourselves. Why do we keep touting these non-pagan films as pagan films? Why are we desperately seeking an accurate portrayal of paganism, and why do we keep trying to point to films like Agora, The Wicker Man, or Black Death as accurate? I would not want to be associated with any of the pagans in any of these films. They're violent. They're evil. They're mindless, unable to think and reason for themselves, and seem prone to cultish behavior.

So... Why, Rioters? Why do we keep spinning these movies as 'pagan'? Why do we want any of these films to represent us?

I ask you.

*Update* After re-reading this article, I'd like to add one more point: I'm not saying that you cannot get anything out of these movies. One of my favorite books on spirituality is Eat, Pray, Love. Cory of New World Witchery says the films of Hayao Miyazaki very much resemble his views of spirituality and the spirit world. Many people derive many positive things from pop culture. Just because watching parts of Avatar made my inner earth-worshipper feel all warm and fuzzy does not mean that the entire film is pagan, that James Cameron is pagan, or that any broad stroke you want to come up with about that movie or its creators is pagan.

Take something positive from these films, if you find something positive in them. Enjoy them. Hell, use parts of the philosophy to enhance your understanding of the divine if something clicks deeply with you, but...please understand that these are not "pagan" films that represent the pagan community. At least, not the pagan community as I understand it to be, or, possibly, as I hope it to be.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

6 comments:

  1. I'm in the same boat as you. I keep hearing about so-called "pagan" movies, and each one is touted as the "best" in representation of the philosophy or religious activities. None of them are. But, then again, I have never seen a "Christian" film that properly represented the xian culture that I grew up with, and still live around.

    Christian films are either a exposure of fringe fascists (Jesus Camp comes to mind); gross romanticizations of imaginary utopian societies were everyone is square, heterosexual, cardigan wearing republicans with only first-world problems that is, in actuality, incredibly self-indulgent (Fire Proof comes to mind); or just plain mean.

    Most religious groups are not represented in the media as normal, simply because it doesn't sell. I also think that it's about time that actual pagans began representing themselves in the arts, and stop expecting anyone else to do so with any real insight or esoteric knowledge.

    Starhawk's upcoming The Fifth Sacred Thing film adaptation is hopefully going to be an interesting dystopic drama...but even then, it'll only be from her viewpoint and her imagination—not the pagan community at large.

    Good insight. I never thought about the Wicker Man that way before. I never actually consider any singular story as a representation of a whole society...or even a representation of reality for that matter. It's Hollywood after all. You've given me a lot to think about. <3

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  2. It would seem to me that people who espouse some of these movies as pagan (especially Black Death) are the same kinda with the bumper sticker that reads "Too many Christians; Not enough Lions".

    They are so desperate to be taken as main stream that they latch onto anything even remotely in the realm of pagan. I see this with older movies like The Craft.

    I do like the original Wicker Man purely as a cult classic or creepy surprise ending. To me, there was nothing pagan about it, but rather more Stepford wife-ish.

    As a swamp witch, ceremonial mage, and follower of Vodou I have learned that you can not use Hollywood to convey any kind of accuracy towards religion, spirituality, or magick. 8/10 times we are devil worshipers, and now with other 2% of the time we are mindless killers in a cult (hmm almost like Waco or Jonestown...).

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  3. Thank you. I had watched these movies when they had come out and lately had heard how 'pagan, wonderful, amazing and special they were' especially the Wicker Man. I actually had thought that perhaps I had watched the wrong movie with the same name because I thought it was like Harvest Home. Showing the old ways as so very special and nuturing and then, the twist of sacrifice. Excellent story and very creepy read (Harvest Home movie was a pretty poor adaptation) but not the way I would want to live my life or a reflection of my spiritual path.
    Your writing here reminds me of the little boy in the Emperor's New Clothes. Well said!

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  4. I enjoyed movies like "Practical Magic", and "Brotherhood of the Wolf" along with several Miyazaki films and otherwise. But I don't see them as an extension of my spirituality. Also, as a movie with "pagan themes" but isn't really pagan at all, I can't wait to see DisneyPixar's "Brave". But that's aside from the point. A good book I'd recommend about exploring other paths that is actually semi-accurate(at least from the ouside view) is
    "Memoirs of a Spiritual" Outsider by Suzanne Clores. She's a fun lady, as well as a fun writer.

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  5. I am with you! I WISH Harry Potter magic was real, how fun would that be. I enjoyed some of these movies as entertainment, but I don't feel any of them portray real Pagans nor do they offer an accurate glimpse into a Pagan lifestyle!

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  6. Miyazaki's films tend to reflect more of a spiritual approach to nature because Japan as a whole has that attitude. There is also a hell of alot of Japanese mythology thrown into them as well. But with Thor and Harry Potter I do admire the books WAY more than the films. You at least have to credit the research the authors did, even if if they used artistic licence to portray things in a slightly different way from the original. But hey isn't that what an author/writers job is supposed to be? Reshaping ideas to give a new perspective on a story? Along the graphic novels line, Sandman by Neil Gaiman is amazing and has loads of mythology thrown in, as well as interesting ways of personifying the eternals. I'm not claiming any of these things are pagan by a long shot, but they are very enjoyable as stories and can feed our ideas about mythology.

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