submitted by George Poulos on 04.10.2004
The Sydney Institute is a privately funded current affairs forum which enjoys good relations with both sides of Australian politics.
The Institute holds weekly forums, an annual dinner and occasional international conferences. All papers delivered to the Institute are published in The Sydney Papers which has a wide and influential circulation - including university, college and school libraries. The Institute also publishes The Sydney Institute Quartlerly incorporating Media Watch (which commenced publication in 1988 and was first into the field of media watching in Australia).
The Sydney Institute holds a major annual dinner. The lecture is given by a speaker who has made an important contribution at an international or national level.
Speakers in the 1990's included: 1990, John Spalvins; 1991, Michael Charlton; 1992, Wang Gungwu, 1993, Shirley Hazzard; 1994 David Malouf; 1995, Helen Garner; 1997, Jill Kerr Conway; 1998, Peter Doherty; 1999, Simone Young; 2000, General Peter Cosgrove.
The Larry Adler Lecture for 1996, held at The Regent, Sydney, on Wednesday 11 September, 1996, was given by Australian film maker George Miller.
Best known as the co-producer and co-writer of the award winning film Babe, George Miller is also a partner in the Kennedy-Miller production company. His long list of successful films includes the Mad Max films, The Witches of Eastwick, and Lorenzo's Oil.
[Search under "Miller" on the internal kythera-family Search engine - for numerous other entries, and links to other sites.]
George Miller was introduced by Sydney Institute Chairman Rob Ferguson, and the vote of thanks was given by playwright David Williamson. MC for the evening was Meridith Hellicar, a member of the Board of Governors of the Sydney Institute.
The 1996 Lary Adler Lecture was proudly sponsored by Telstra.
This is the first time the lecture has appeared anywhere in the world in electronic format, and I thank George Miller for his kind permission to reproduce it.
In 2001 George Miller also delivered another paper, A City that Works
Republished in, Sydney Papers, Volume 13. No. 4 Spring, 2001.
This lecture can be purchased from the RMIT e-library website:
THE APOCALYPSE AND THE PIG: OR THE HAZARDS OF STORYTELLING.
The situation is not without its risks. You are sitting there, attentive. And me with a chance to put some ideas forward in a much longer form than usual. So each table has been issued with a whistle.Gerard Henderson suggested that if the going gets a little haevy, I could throw in one or two snappy anecdotes about Hollywood. So if you feel your eyes glazing over, you know what to do.
Meanwhile, I'll take you through some of my adventures in story-telling in the hope that a few notions might be useful.
Visual music and public dreaming .
When I first took to film-making, my approach was very straight forward; I was interested in the pure plasticity of film. I was struck by Jimmy Stewart's lovely phrase when he described film as "pieces of time", and each length of celluloid, cut to cut, running at 24 frames a second is like that, a little piece of time you can hold in your hands. I was intensely curious about how to join these pieces together like notes on a piano. To me, films were virtual music.
My first movie, Mad Max, was pure and simply a piece of visual rock and roll. What I didn't know at the time was that there were larger impulses at work.
As the Mad Max films made their way around the planet, they seemed to resonate somehow, culture to culture. To the French, these were post-modern, post-apocalyptic westerns and Max was a gunslinger. In Japan he was an outlaw Samuari. In Scandinavia, a lone viking warrior. The movies had tapped into the universal hero myth and I was given a taste of what Carl Jung was on about when he described the collective unconscious.
Here it was, first hand. And I, despite my creative vanities, was its unwitting servant. I was reminded that films, like all storytelling, have deeper dimensions. And I learned to look beyond the obvious, to feel out subtext where one is likely to find some elemental truths. Films are like dreams. When we congregate with strangers in the darkness of the cinema, it's a kind of public dreaming, where we process, mostly unconsciously, the more insistent concerns of our lives.
Jung might have described the terrain, but Joseph Campbell is the consumate guide. Until Campbell, I often wondered why I was mucking about in the film industry, indeed why any of us have this urge to communicate through narrative.
I learned from his dazzling scholarship, for instance, that the same stories arise spontaneously across time and space and are to;d as a way of connecting ourselves to all that had gone before and all that will come after.
Because I'm a storyteller, I sometimes have a privileged view. In the mid 1980's we wanted to shoot one of the Mad Max movies at Kata Tjima (that place previously named after someone called Olga.) Now, to the Aboriginals of the central desert, this place is sacred - every bit as holy as a cathedral, a temple, or a mosque. We were required to sit with the tribal elders of the Pitjamtjatjara and present them with our story. We described the scenes, and showed them our storyboards, and they responded with a short dance. They were excited; they had heard the Mad Max story before. Many of its motifs and archetypes corresponded to some of their own.
So here was this popcorn movie sage, and here were the custodians of a culture 40,000 years old, and once again the connections were being made, but now across the expanse of time.
The narrative imperative
Somewhere in our neurophysiology, we've been hardwired for story. There is a kind of narrative imperative - we can't be without stories and we find them where we can.
Out there in the calamitous give and take of life, we look for coherence. Patterns. beliefs, signals amongst the noise. It's one of the things humans do. We strive instinctively to instil meaning out of life.
So all of us carry highly personalised narratives. They make up the mosaic of who we are and what we believe. Most of the time they are implicit or subliminal, because we don't apprehend life by the intellect alone. Woody Allen was right, sometimes the cerebral cortex is a highly overrated organ. So we have this lovely mechanism to weave the ineffable, the mysterious and diffuse into stories. We suck them out of the zeitgeist and carry them like a set of tools to help explain the world and to guide our way through it. When there is an interconnected set of stories, we call it mythology. When it's shared by a group of people, it becomes a culture.
Sometimes, it's just a culture of two, shared with a friend, a lover, a mother. Sometimes, it's corporate, an institution, a multinational, a football team, a city, a nation, and at its most potent, it connects the entire expanse od space and time.
That's one of the depest functions of mythology, to give us context, to connect us. To help us embrace the numinous - that sense of dread and awe we feel when confronted with the immensity of space and time. These kinds of mythologies are so potent, they become the great religious movements.
Storytelling is a force of nature. There should be one of those warnings stencilled on the container "Hazardous material" or, at the very least, "Handle with care".
The lost tribe
You may remember that extraordinary event in the early 1970's when they discovered a tiny clan of about 30 cave dwellers deep in the forests of the Philippine Island of Mindabao. Their life was astonishingly simple, they hadn't yet learnt to hunt, they just gathered.
And they had no rituals, no marriages, no funerals. And for a while, we thought that we'd come across an authentic comminity from the middle paleolithic age, a tiny cul-de-sac of human evolution. As it turned out, these stunted naked people were the descendants of a coastal tribe who fled from pirates to the sanctuary of the forest 400-1,000 years ago. The natural historians and the antropologists were va little let down, but the mythologists discovered something thrilling. This small group of frightened individuals had created a mythology de novo. Just a few simple stories that explained their universe to them. And their universe was tiny, just three limestone caves on a cliff, 400 feet above a creek and the immediate surround of forest.
Into their mythology, they had woven stories of danger, instructing them how to forage safely and warning them never to leave the caves at night....it's probably the reason they survived hidden away so long.
And one of these stories even provided for a messiah. When they were first discovered, they promptly deified the person who led the expedition....a gentle Filipino official called Manuel.
The gift we take from this huddled clan in Mindanao is this - you find your mythology where you can. If it's taken away from you, you'll work with what you've got to fill the narrative void. Think about where you get your narratives from. It comes from your experience, from your affiliations and your shared histories, and mostly it comes without you having to think about it.
So what happens if you are suddenly without them?
In some parts of the world they are experiencing a bewildering incidence of violent crime. The ghettoes of America, post-communist Russia and post-apartheid South Africa are most often in the headlines right now. And it's not hard to see it's pathogenesis.
In South Africa, we have the appalling example of Sofiatown. Sofiatown was a cultural accident that happened on the outskirts of Johannesburg earlier this century. A developer couldn't shift his tracts of land because the council built its sewarge disposal next to it, so he sold it to the blacks and coloureds. It was the only place in South Africa where blacks could own land and it developed into a close knit community of extraordinary vitatlity. During the 1940's and 1950's it was a cultural hothouse, giving rise to a remarkable generation of journalists, writers, musicians and politicians.
And there was also the prostitutes, the shabeen queens and the gangsters. It spawned the likes of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and even DEsmond Tutu. It drew the Athol Fugards, the Alan Patons and the Trevor Huddlestons.
Its spectacular success as a community was a direct threat to apartheid, and so, in 1953, the bulldozers moved in, and Sofiatown was threatened. The rubble was cleared, the area fumigated and the 60,000 inhabitants were packed into government trucks and moved on.
In its place they put up a glutinous, Afrikaaner suburb, and, infamously, they named it...Triumph.
The crushing of Sofiatown was, one way or the other repeated all over South Africa for decades.
It doesn't take too many generations before you are completely dispossessed. It is one thing to revisit, or even recover, a piece of geography. But you cant retrieve your culture, not even when it's being systematically destroyed.
If you are an African American male, for example, only a few generations removed from slavery, and trapped in the ghettoes - from where do you take your guiding narratives, your codes of conduct, and your sense of honour?
In South Central Los Angeles, they don't all troop off to Emma Thompson movies. They take it from what is nearest at hand....from the street, from television. You know the statistics......we've heard them so often now....the average child in the United States has seen eight thousand murders, and a hundred thousand other violent acts on television before he or she leaves primary school.
Let's look a little closer to home. You're a disaffected white male, seething with free-floating resentments, with not much in your life to give you cohesion or a sense of competence.
You like to watch television, play video games, go to the movies.
You lose yourself up there in the world on the screen. A world which has little or no moral complexity. Just the rudimentary notion that guns, big guns, are the answer to almst any problem. And the notion is reinforced, not this once, but by hundreds, if not thousands, of similar vicarious experiences.
Notice, by the way, how often in the last half century, movies have been touted by posters of men pointing guns.
Then one day you're disinhibited by some mind-altering chemical, by alcohol, psychopathyor some other reality perception problem. This is not too long a bow to draw to Port Artrhur, Dunblane and all those MacDonalds stores and post offices in the United States.
Mad Max and Babe
How then do you approach censorship? I think we shouldn't even try. To withold any information or idea from anyone goes against human intelligence and the curiosity that got us here in the first place. Some people argue it's easy to see the distinction, say, between Platoon and Rambo, or even Taxi Driver and Natural Born Killers. But, quite honestly, I can't even choose between Mad Max and Babe.
The Mad Max trilogy is ultimately about the redemption of a lost soul. The first movie is pretty much a one-dimensional revenge fantasy, but in the second and third, Max is the closet Imman being who, in the end, rekindles his compassion. Furthermore, by relinquishing his self-interest, he becomes the agent of renewal.
The world we must survive is dysfunctional and full of dread, but then, that is exactly what is in Babe. The very beginning of the film is set in a death camp, with Babe's mother being taken off to slaughter. For two thirds of the story, the lead character has but one destiny - that is to be eaten by a serial killer, the farmer's wife.
It's an old argument, but who makes the judgement call? And where do we start? At the more brutal passages of the Old Testament? Euripides? Shakespeare? Which fairy tale? Hansel and Gretel? Which nursery rhyme? "Three blind mice.....see how they run....they all run upo to the farmer's wife, who'll cut off their tails with a carving knife."
Censorship is ultimately impossible. As each day goes by, technology sees to that. It should be no surprise that the fastest growing use of the Internet is to be found in high-censorship states, like Iran.
Broadcast television and the internet
But there is a difference between Worldwide Web and broadcast television, for instance. On the Net, the selecting intelligence is with the individual user; its more like real life in the sense that it mirrors the normal distribution of conerns; it allows us to join little ghettoes of like interests.
It can take you into the Sistine Chapel to study the detail of the refurbishment. You can share the latest joke with your cyber-neighbour Poland, or you can surf down into the nether world and sample some of the more profound evils.
Broadcast television is an entirely different matter. The selecting intelligence is localised with the broadcaster. When it comes to television, Marshall McLuhan was dead right. The medium is the message. TV is that ubiquitous amd familiar window, that allows us to watch the outside world from the safe haven of our living room. The received message is this...."Here is the larger world as it actually is, and these are the ways you might respond to it."
Broadcasters are very priveileged; whatever they choose to show adds powerfully to the mosaic of our mythology. Censorship might not work, but prudence sometimes does.
The discourse on media violence is reminscent of the debate on tobacco. It wasn't until the 1960's that we were alerted to its harmful effects, and we'd been smoking the stuff for centuries. Even then, it took a decade or two to do something about it.
Cinema itself is just a hundred years old; broadcast TV not much more than fifty; video and computer games even more recent. Culture, and the technology which facilitates it, is in rapid evolution. To say that there is no hard evidence of the harmful effects of the media violence seems to me to be as disingenuous as the cigarette companies and their medical scientists, who for so long defended tobacco with the same cries.
Its tough for the behavioural scientists. There are no mathematical certainties. You are trying to establish a direct causality but the process is organic, it won't lend itself easily to reductionism. But as a practising storyteller, I could hardly fail to notice that movies and TV impinge on behaviour. As a film-maker you receive some unusual feedback.
One day a man parked across from our office. Now not only was his costume identical to Mad Max's, but so was his car. He didn't want to talk, or engage in any other way. He simply sat there staring ahead, each day, nine to five, for a whole week. Then he left.
A woman called from Ohio after she had seen Babe. She wanted the words of the song that the farmer sandg to revive the spirits of the pig. She said, her horse was depressed.
An Israeli physicist, diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, was planning the details of his suicide when he happened to see Lorenzo's Oil. Inspired by the struggle of the Odone family, he changed doctors and became proactive in the management of his disease. So far, it has gained him four more years of productive life.
I notice how I modify my own behaviour as a result of the movies. As a younf doctor in the emergency ward, I was suddenly required to tell a woman that her husband had just died, when I realsied that nobody had even given me advice on how to do it, so I resorted to all those behaviours that I learnt from the movies. I shook my head in that slow, sad way and muttered all the cliches.
But this was also her first time, and she did the same.
How many of us, as kids during the 1950's, jarred our ankles badly when we jumped off the roof of the garage trailing a bed sheet thinking we were superman?
Watch kids in the playground as an index of how much we take from American street culture via the movies and TV. The caps worn backwards, the high fives and the gesture "yes!" from Home Alone. Indeed, I was was working with traditional women in an ancient Muslim village in the North of Kenya, their black bui-buis covering everything but their eyes, and when they had finished an arduous day shooting as extras, they, too, started to give each other high fives.
If movies and television influence what we wear, the way we talk, the way we move, the way we play as children, how can we say with conviction that it also deosn't influence our behaviour at a cognitive and moral level? The analaogy to cigarette smoking, of course, we can't take too far. As a doctor, I only had one or two patients who tried to convince me that smoking actually improved their health. On the other hand, the narratives we experience through our media have the ability to cohere, amaze, inspire, and to heal.
The privilege of the storyteller
If it's your privilege to be a storyteller, be aware that it's a force of nature. Don't treat it casually. Don't be afraid to address the darkness, or to shock or disturb. Like nightmares when we dream, these stories often have the greatest capacity to heal. They alert us to our pathologies and allow us catharsis.
Think of stories like food, try to provide nourishment. Don't serve up empty calories...the mindless can be toxic.
Apply all your wisdom to your work. If you're game to enter the debate, be broad and holistic in your approach, avoid static reductionist concepts ...what I like to call "noun" thinking. The process is dynamic - a verb. So try and see the dynamics of the whole. Narrative practioners are in a vigorous feedback
loop with the cultures they are trying to explore.
Look beyond the obvious. Challenge assumptions. Never foreclose on your understanding. Furthermore, storytelling exists because often it deals with what is beyond the immediate reach of the intellect.
Stories are also experienced in the middle and early brain, so if you approach them with your intellect as your only tool of understanding, be careful. There will be great yawning gaps conundrumsm and the reptilian brain will be waiting, ready to bite you.
Culture rich, culture poor
There are some societies, like Japan, who have a high tolerance for violence in their entertainment, who at the same time have almost no violence in the street or the home. But then the Japanese are culture rich. Their unifying narratives are prodigious and resilient, and surprisingly adapative to the upheavals of the technological age. So the violence on their TV and in their movie theatres is less likely to promote behaviour, rather, it helps them let off steam.
For societies which are culture poor, it's a different matter. California is a place where you go to reinvent yourself. Post-war is was a great locus of social experimentation. So whatever culture it has is constantly shifting. It doesn't have a chance to lay down deep roots. These culture poor societies are suspectible to the quality of the media from which they replenish their myths.
So tentatively, I offer this equation: If you're culture rich, violent media provides catharsis; if you're culture poor, it also provides instruction.
Mytholgy and sport
I don't want to suggest that all our myth making is confined to the media, the arts, or the church. There are two other arenas where high mythological content goes largely unrecognised. The first is sport.
Sport is the great secular ritual. It ritualises conflict and endeavour, and again, provides catharsis, "make sport, not war" is its catchcry. Finally, it suggests how we may conduct our lives with honour abd courage. This is what Campbell calls the "pedagogic" function of mythology.
The heroic figures in sport are not merely those who win, but those who win in circumstances where it is easier to give into despair.
Greg Luganis's career came down to one final dive. Knowing that he was HIV positive, having cracked his head on the diving board early in the competition, he is required to execute a platform dive, rated the highest degree of dufficulty. It's known as the "death dive." One chance - and he pulls it off so exquisitely he becomes the first back to back Olympic diving champion.
These are sports transcendent moments.
And then there's the pageantry. The ticker tape raining down on the parade of the returning champions, the trophy, a chalice or shield, held high above the head of the victor, the laps of honour, the dancing maidens, the affiliation to tribal colours, the obsessions with statistics - great deeds transformed into folklore.
This is why we find some of our best writing at the back of the newspaper.
Mytholgy and science
Now for science.
There is a lovely interplay between mythology, with its impulse towards all encompassing metaphor on the one hand, and the slow small steps of objective elucidation that is science.
Let's take an ancient culture well before Copernicus, for example. How does it explain the weather? Why did the wind generally blow in one direction? What causes the seasons? Why does the temperature change depending on whether we travel north or south? Compelled to explain their universe, they rely on mythology, their stories are created from the known.
So there is a god for each of the four seasons, and a god for the prevailing winds.
Now time moves on. With the help of Copernicus and Kepler and Newton we manage to take some representatives of this polytheistic culture to a vantage point deep in space, when suddenly it all becomes obvious because we see that the earth is tilted on its axis as it orbits around the sun.
Because of this tilt the northern hemisphere receives less sunlight during one part of its orbit than during another. So we have a winter and a summer. And since the earth spins in only one direction - that is clockwise to someone sitting on the south pole - it helps explain the prevailing winds.
So myths lose their power when they are no longer necessary. They evaporate to be replaced by metaphors more relevant to the time.
How amazing then is the resilience of Aboriginal Australian "dreaming", that it endures after 200 years of European settlement. This was the worlds oldest living culture, reaching back at least 40 millenia. After they were done in my disease, despair and outright genocide, there was a systematic attempt to de-tribalise them, to make them invisible. And yet fragments of the culture endure. Its resilience is a measure of power.
Joseph Campbell had a wonderfully mischievous definition of mythology. Mythology is simply "other peoples religion", and religion he described as as "misunderstood mythology". What he was getting at was the danger of concretising the mataphor. Taking the virgin birth, for example, as a biological anomaly...or the promised land, a tract of real estate in the Middle East. When you concretise the metaphor, you take all the juice out of it. It loses its poetry, becomes static and brittle....then we get into all sorts of trouble.
It may even end in war. IN the 1970's in Beirut for example, the promoters of three differing inflections of the same idea of a single paternal God, began unloading bombs on each other. As Campbell wrote, it all comes of misreading metaphors, mistaking denotation for connotation, the messenger for the message.
But back to science.
You may remember this from primary school. When you apply energy, in the form of heat, to a block of ice and we watch it transform first into water, and then into steam. These shifts are called phase transitions - a solid, a liquid, and then a gas. Before this century, that's as far as the story could go, but continue to apply heat, and the molecules are ripped apart into hydrogen and oxygen gas.
Go even further to 3000 degrees Kelvin until those atoms in turn are ripped apart and the electrons are pulled from the nucleus. At a billion degrees Kelvin, the nuclei break up into individual neutrons and protons like that in the interior of the neutron star. Now we need the physics of the middle to late 20th Century, because we go to 10 trillion degrees Kelvin and the sub atomic particles become a gas of quarks and leptons.
Then we apply fabulous amounts of energy - 10 to the power of 32 degrees Kelvin, and all the forces known in the universe, the electromagnetic, the strong and weak nuclear force, and indeed gravity, will be united. That's when the symmetries of the ten-dimensional superstrings appear.
We are now deep in the quantum realm, and this is the prodigious energy that was the state of the universe at the "Big Bang"....beyond which everything is unknown, and the origin of the cosmos becomes the purview of mythology. Science has given us a simple story of the melting ice cube but is sure takes us a long way.
Mythology accounts for that which is beyond the known, while science, cautiously, in its own good time, probes the borders and with each success claims a little more territory.
I agree with those who say "science is a slower but surer path to God".
As we know the growth of scientific knowledge is exponential. The more we know the faster we can know more. We have acquired more knowledge since World War II, than we previously amassed in the entire two million year history of our evolution. No wonder the worlds great religions are fragmenting, retreating into fundamentalism, or being replaced by new fads that exploit our innate spiritual questing and compulsion to ultimacy.
For most of the time during the dialogue between the scientists and the theolgians, they've tended to talk past each other. But now, more and more, their discourses intersect.
Even the earliest tribes had "origin" myths that explain where they might have come from. And the scientists have got us as far as the big bang. They tell us now that we are children of the stars, that the atoms within our bodies were forged in the cauldron of nuclear synthesis in exploding stars long before the birth of the solar systems. We are literally made of star dust. And, what is so extraordinary, those atoms that make up you and I have, in turn, coalesced into intelligent beings capable of understanding the universal laws governing that very event.
The dance between science and myth is a gem to watch. Cosmology and theology. You're never quite sure which is leading the other. A final quote from Joseph Campbell:
"Indeed the first and most essential service of mythology is to open the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being. The second service then is cosmological; of representing the universe and the whole spectacle of nature....as an epiphany of such a kind that when lightning flashes, or the setting sun ignites the sky, or a deer is seen standing alerted, the exclamation "sash" may be uttered as a recognition of divinity."
If you think that this stuff is a little too intangible, I offer the fact that, as a storyteller, my tools are not as simple, unfortunately, as the the word processor, ot the artists' pen...to tell my stories, I use the great lumbering machine of film-making - so I'm big on praxis. To the extent that the road warrior and the pig may have impinged on global culture.....you might say, I'm giving away my best industrial secrets.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
‘Andrew’ Anargyros Vretos Fatseas
Andrew Victor Fatseas (Andy)
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