Pamela Jaye Smith is a mythologist, writer, international consultant/speaker, and award-winning producer/director for over thirty-five years. Founder of Mythworks and Applied Mythology, Pamela is the author of SHOW ME LOVE!, THE POWER OF THE DARK SIDE: SYMBOLS, IMAGES, AND CODES, BEYOND THE HERO’S JOURNEY, and ROMANTIC COMEDIES. She also co-authored two children’s books, and will speak tomorrow at Michael Wiese Production’s Pre-Oscar bash. We spoke recently about the dark side in last year’s films, how and why myths endure, and her favorite cinematic moment of 2017, which happens to be from a Best Picture Oscar contender.
Visit Pamela's websites: Mythworks, Mythic Challenges, and the Alphababe Academy.
Be sure and join the Michael Wiese Productions Pre Oscars bash livestreamed here.
DW: Do you see a theme in the dark side of this year's Oscar race? It appears to have some dark films.
PJS: First let’s define the three levels of the Dark Side: Personal, Impersonal, and Supra-personal. The Personal is a character’s foibles, phobias, illness, grief or shame. Level Two is Impersonal: the forces of nature, time, gravity, disasters, diseases, things you cannot reason with but which can cause all sorts of problems. Level Three is Supra-personal: other individuals, society, oppressors, warmongers, deities, demons, and such.
Indeed there is a lot of darkness in this year’s slate of films. Interestingly, there is a commonality in that many of the nominees’ lead characters are battling with Level One with their own personal problems in Three Billboards, Lady Bird, The Big Sick and Logan with his adamantine poisoning. Also look at Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, and The Shape of Water for other psychological and physical challenges characters must overcome or learn to deal with.
At Level Two Impersonal there’s Mudbound where people fight the weather and Logan where the heroes are fighting against time and aging.
The Level Three Supra-personal dark sides seem to be quite huge and daunting as in Dunkirk and Darkest Hour,
going up against the Nazis and in Shape of Water the deadly competitors in the Cold War.
DW: Who would you say is the best villain in this year's Oscar race?
PJS: The best, most dangerous villains this year are not specific individuals so much as Level 3 divisive attitudes: rampant tribalism in Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, separatism with Mudbound and Three Billboards, and the animated feature The Breadwinner, about a young girl in war-torn Afghanistan. There was also elitism, with Get Out!, and corporate-military overreach in The Post and Shape of Water.
Given the state of the US and many other parts of the world these last years of rising incivility and inequalities, it does not surprise me that a good number of the Best Picture nominees deal with people going up against these attitudes.
DW: Did 2017 films shy away from the dark side? Independent films seemed to with the exception of the adaptation of Stephen King's It.
PJS: I think most of the films nominated for Best Picture and/or Best Screenplay took on the Dark Side head on, on at least two Levels. That, by the way, is most effective. You always want to have your protagonist battling some internal problem and then also have them going up against something external on Level Two or three. Sometimes you’ll find all three, as in Mudbound, but in your own creations, do shoot for at least two levels.
It behooves us to keep in mind that the Dark Side needn’t always be demons and evil wizards or serial killers. Again, take a look at those three levels as you inspect the stories. The documentary Icarus pits the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Russian state and its athletic doping program against fair play in the Olympics. Even The Big Sick had a lot of Dark Side in it when you look at the Dark Side more broadly.
DW: Films such as Get Out featured a dark undercurrent but also characters who were heroes in their own world. This in my mind made the film more effective. Would you agree?
PJS: Yes, absolutely. Besides in Get Out, one of the most effective characters for me was Sam Rockwell’s in Three Billboards. I don’t know if we can call him a hero yet at the end of the story, but his arc was amazingly wide yet intimately detailed, including arrogant racism, all-round detestable behavior, deep personal grief when Woody Harrelson died, anger, vengeance, and eventually an increasing softening and respect towards Frances McDormand.
DW: Do you see re-emerging myths or folklore themes in last year's films?
PJS: Another definition here – Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us and within us. And sometimes also to justify the world we have created.
The great thing about learning and using Mythic Themes is that they are universal and timeless. Variations on the same themes show up all around the world and down through the millennia. Our best stories align with these ancient ones.
The Shape of Water tells a tried and true Beauty and the Beast story, but one that goes both ways as Sally Hawkins was also a being trapped by her ‘differentness’ and who is liberated by the love of another stranger in a strange land, whom she also liberates.There are more mythic themes than just The Hero’s Journey - Chris Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey offers excellent coverage on that and I highly recommend it. In my own book Beyond the Hero’s Journey: Other Powerful Mythic Themes, I identify more than twenty others.
Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird follow the Wake-up Call theme. The Big Sick is Star-Crossed Lovers, Mudbound plays out the Twins theme, The Disaster Artist is a wacky Hollywood take on the Pygmalion myth, Dunkirk and Logan tap into The Great Escape, and the heroes in The Post are doing the Stealing Fire from Heaven myth.
DW: Do you have a favorite cinematic moment from this last year?
PJS: Yes, a couple, actually. First though, do keep in mind how important lighting and camera angles are. The person looking down on another has the power, the person looking up has less or may even be totally powerless. Light and shadow can create very ominous situations – see more in the German Expressionist films. Something of someone moving towards camera and filling the frame can feel overwhelming.
The scene in Shape of Water where they make love in the water-filled bathroom is symbolically so rich and visually so very engaging. Water is symbolic of the emotions, which is perfect here.
The fall into the sunken place in Get Out! captures the sense of losing control of your consciousness and your body yet being watched from above in with malevolent intent. That closing of focus and darkening of light in the shrinking screen replays the physiology of fainting and blacking out and makes it downright horrifying.
Also, the end credits of Icarus where feathers and wax melt in fire, an elegant reference to Icarus, the over-confident Greek boy who disobeyed his inventor father Daedalus’s warning not to fly too high with the home-made wings of feathers and wax. Icarus didn’t listen, headed towards the brilliance of the sun, and yes, you know the next… the wax melted, the feathers fell off the wings, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.
A book I’ve co-authored with Monty Hayes McMillan, Show Me the Love!, includes suggested cinematic techniques for portraying different kinds of love such as love of the land, love of family, love of adventure, and more. The beauty of filmmaking is that there are so many aspects for expression, from the cinematography to the sound design, art direction to music, and of course story, directing, and acting.
This year’s Oscar nominees offer many quite wonderfully-told stories in the various categories.
Clips: Get Out