Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Jesus Christ and Billy the Kid as Archetypes of the Self in American Cinema

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Jesus Christ and Billy the Kid as Archetypes of the Self in American Cinema

Article excerpt


[1] In recent years, there has been an increasing "revitalised interest" in Jungian psychoanalytical method based on the concept of cinema as a collective experience, especially in the fields of literature and cultural studies, such as "post-Jungian" film analysis. (1) Hauke and Alister argue that watching a film in a cinema is an experience "set apart" from daily life, "in a dark place dedicated to this purpose ... where psyche can come alive, be experienced and be commented upon." (2) The art of cinema has technologically transformed the mystical luminous experience of rituals into luminous screen images of archetypal heroes and narratives, invested with symbols of mechanically reproduced dreams. (3) Films are based on collective myths and legends, narrated in a Celluloid Church. Through this medium, the auteur director controls the aesthetical world of the audience's cosmos, taking the role of the charismatic prophet of a whole generation. Through his eyes, the visual metaphors of a film can transform each viewer from within, and at the same time, establish, reproduce, and critically reflect upon the collective consciousness of the viewers' understanding of "society" as a whole, and more specifically, of the film industry that produces them.

[2] In highlighting the affinity between Carl Gustav Jung's concept of "collective unconsciousness" and Emile Durkheim's "collective consciousness," I look into the ideals of friendship, love, and sacrifice of the most famous outcast of all, Jesus, as an archetype of the Christian moral Self. In particular, I focus on the myth of Billy the Kid, in visual correlations to the symbolism of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection in two films: Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun (1958), and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), with comparative references to other films of the time. The correlations I will be drawing of Billy as the Self/Shadow archetype of Jesus, critically reflect on the changes in American culture that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, starting from the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, and through the spirituality of the 1960s, to the rise of neofundamentalist Christianity.

The Celluloid Church: Jesus as a Moral Archetype of the Self

   Jung was impressed by what cinema offered in terms of the imagery,
   narratives and the dynamics of film--both photographically and in
   the human processes depicted ... cinema offers both a means and a
   space to witness the psyche--almost literally in projection. Cinema
   fields deliver a contemporary experience set apart from "daily
   life"--collectively experienced with others in a dark place
   dedicated to this purpose. This experience of psyche-inprojection
   travels further and differently from that offered by the theatre
   due to the flexibility involved in the photographic medium ...
   Cinema has the possibility of becoming an imaginal space--a
   temenos--and by engaging with films a version of active imagination
   is stimulated which can then engage the unconscious--potentially in
   as successful a fashion as our conscious attention to dream imagery
   and other fantasies ... cinema represents a birth of the
   collective. (4)

[3] From a post-Jungian perspective, cinema can be seen as a modern metaphor of Durkheim's "Church." For Durkheim the concept of the" sacred" formed a unifying system of belief, collectively expressed in rituals, which through "things apart and forbidden" formed the moral order and structural hierarchy of a totemic "society". (5) For both Jung and Durkheim religion was a matter of personal experience, a way to connect the individual to the wider collective, through the luminous experiential concept of "numinous" (Rudolf Otto). (6) Jung highlights the Self as the source of this collective and impersonal force, which he associates with archaic elements of the "collective unconsciousness. …

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