Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature

sunny home literature film

Homes are an outworking of the characters who live inside. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For my notes after reading Gaston Bachelard, see Symbolism of the Dream House.
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The Bus To St James’s by John Cheever

I bought The Collected Stories of John Cheever as a salve to heal my Mad Men withdrawals, and this is one of Cheever’s stories that absolutely reminds me of Mad Men. Stephen Bruce is a Don Draper character; his daughter is a Sally Draper type. Matt Weiner has cited Cheever as one source of inspiration for Mad Men, and in this story we have an early example of the sympathetic antihero.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A married man (on his second marriage) has an affair with a woman in his social circle. They are seen out and about, the man’s wife hires a private investigator and eventually the woman’s husband leaves her, taking their children to the country.

mad men 660 amc

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What Is Meant By ‘Mythic Structure’?

William Henry Mander - A Welsh River Valley

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.

Unknown

British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.

@ExistentialComics

I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.

Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator

Myth can be considered a genre. It is the oldest genre and to this day is the most popular.

Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.

Mythic form is enjoyed by audiences across cultures.

Raison D’être

Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly

THE INFLUENCE OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY

Originally, the Greeks invented myths which are now the foundation of Western thought. Even back then these were considered allegorical and metaphorical. In Greek myths, there were always at least two levels of beings: Gods and humans. The gods represented the aspect of man which was able to gain enlightenment and excellence. The gods did not necessarily rule the humans.

Consider the Greek gods ‘psychological models’ which represent character traits.

THE SYMBOLISM OF MYTH

Myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. Original audiences always knew that these objects stood for something else. These objects also represent something within the hero. Even today, audiences will recognise these symbolic archetypes:

  • Journey = life path
  • Tree = tree of life
  • Underground = unexplored region of the self
  • Crossroads = moral dilemma
  • Darkness = death

Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:

Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

For more on this see The Three Main Types Of Modern Mythic Structure, in which I have added an extra.

EXAMPLES OF STRONGLY MYTHIC  MODERN FILMS

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
  • Close Encounters
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • Dances With Wolves
  • The Lion King
  • Groundhog Day
  • Avatar science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental  human distinctions (human/robot etc.)
  • Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
  • Casablanca
  • The African Queen classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
  • La Strada
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano myth blended with romance
  • Bringing Up Baby
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
  • Annie Hall
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • True Grit  basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
  • Harry Potter mixture of myth, fairytale and coming-of-age in a school story. Typically for heroes of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
  • Le Week-end a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
  • Locke a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
  • Wildlike a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
  • Jolene a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
  • Hunt For The Wilderpeople a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.

Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.

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Reflection and Delusion In The Cure by John Cheever

martini the cure
One Cheever-endorsed Cure for Loneliness: Drink many martinis and forget the difference between reality and delusion.

In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats.

Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger.

John Truby, Secrets of Genre

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CURE”

From The New Yorker:

The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.

The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story — theirs is a surface level summary, avoiding spoilers. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true, within the world of the story?

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