Old Goddesses Never Die -- Letter From Elkhart 1985


My temporary exile in the Midwest has been rendered even more poignant by the fact that among the very limited selection of movies which the denizens of these nether regions are permitted to view were two shot in my old haunts, the Upper West Side of Manhattan -- to wit, "Ghostbusters" and "Splash". While the former was too explicitly theological for my taste, the mermaid metamorphosis scenes in "Splash" made a happy though doubtless accidental allusion to the experience of the grandfather of the first emperor of Japan, who must have got a similar jolt when his bride started sprouting scales. But both films were valuable for their reminder that old goddesses never die, that ancient Sumerian banshees and convertible mermaids stalk up and down Central Park West, every day, all day long.

At Christmastime in Elkhart two out of the three Main Street theaters featured science fiction films. The first, "Night of the Comet", was advertised by a poster depicting an unusually bright star and an awestruck crowd gazing up into the sky. The other, "Starman", was a rather pedestrian extended extraterrestrial chase scene, in which the "ET", pursued at the climax by helicopters, is taken up and ascends into the mother ship. This climax is of course reminiscent of the helicopter chase over the Hudson River in "Splash". (Pauline Kael comments on the recent cinematic deployment of helicopters as "embodiment of evil" -- which of course they are. Remember the Ride of the Valkyries in "Apocalypse Now"? The attack chopper is the perfect, high-tech, up to the minute version of Tolkien's Nazgul [Dark Rider[).

Another sort of climax in "Starman" comes in the boxcar scene when the man from the sky reveals that the young woman will conceive and bear a child, and behold he will become a teacher. Sound familiar? This is a mythic motif which has been around and around, and is at least as old as Genesis 6 (look it up). The divine heroes have always had a thing for the daughters of men. Look at Zeus.

To my mind this epiphanic theme, in which a divine being, male or female, reveals itself and comes to spend some time with us humans, pops up all over the place. In "Vision Quest", which oddly enough turns out to showcase a high school wrestling team, the rigorous ascetic disciplines of the young hero bring him the vision of a pretty young goddess who naturally enough initiates him into manhood and then departs for San Francisco. A sweat-filled high school locker room might seem a peculiar place for the manifestation of the holy, but it's really no more bizarre a venue than a boxcar, or Central Park West for that matter.

Another cinematic variation on the epiphanic motif is the apocalyptic treatment, where the whole tremendous whatever-it-is on the other side of Time breaks in with a ka-whump. This is a little difficult to do in a movie, since part of the mystery is the fact of its hiddenness, and once you get it right out there on the screen it loses a lot of its pizzazz. The mother ship rendezvous in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was probably about as good as they get (except in more "literary" works like Bergman's "Seventh Seal".)

In "2010" where the disembodied astronaut from "2001", making an encore, keeps popping up in a different body every other minute and allowing as how "Something wonderful!" is going to happen, you almost begin to believe him, especially when his granny snaps right out of a coma in an eerie scene like the raising of a corpse to life. In this apocalypse, as it turns out, Jupiter blows up so that there are two suns and no longer any night, and somehow the U.S. and Russia have made peace.

It has occurred to me that spending a lot of time in a seminary this year has just possibly colored my perceptions. This occurred to me real hard the other night when, during a party video showing of "The Big Chill" I found myself calculating that Alex was buried on a Friday, and then on Sunday all of that regenerative activity started busting out all over, like the surrogate father business and Chloe taking Nick downstairs.

I've noticed this year that I can work up a whole lot of religious enthusiasm during a science-fiction film in downtown Elkhart. It's amazing how even unskilled directors can rake up the archetypal images. My haphazard survey of flicks available to the public in the Midwest tells me to my astonishment that the American subconscious is apparently yearning for communion with the divine, and perhaps for communion in a medium more substantial than celluloid.


--Ross Bender