Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Hazards of Escape

There's little physical reality to most laws until they're broken. Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1969 film Medea borrows many elements from Euripides' play but becomes a broader commentary on the function of oaths and their relationship to religion and dreams. It becomes a tale on the hazards of liberation from, and the destruction of, communal dreams or conceptions of reality. It's a very nice looking film, too, with a raw, designedly disorienting aesthetic with a discordant soundtrack drawing from various cultures.

The story begins with a child Jason being instructed by his centaur foster parent, Chiron (Laurent Terzieff). He tells Jason never to forget there's nothing natural about nature and explains how ancient man naturally believed things we consider now to be obviously fantastical. This latter comment seems to indicate the centaur is talking to us more than Jason, a reflection of the centaur's otherworldly nature apparently being that he's a little postmodern. He's the only character in the film who does this, and only the once, thankfully, but it sets the table for what Pasolini's aiming at.

Later in the film, Jason as an adult (Giuseppe Gentile) has a vision of the centaur, simultaneously as the mythological creature and as the man, the juxtaposition designed to highlight the difference between myth and analysis of it. In a bit of slightly dark humour, Chiron admits that his explanations are useless but he can't stop providing them any more than the original centaur can stop prompting them.

Its through this lens the story of Medea presented in the film makes sense--and one wonders if Jason had paid better attention to Chiron the centaur's advice would've truly been so useless.

Charged with retrieving the golden fleece from a barbarous people, Jason arrives to find that Medea (Maria Callas), seemingly more of a priestess than a princess here, has already done the job for him without even having met him. We witness first the sacrifice and dismemberment of a man in a harvest ritual presided over by Medea and then she sacrifices another man in the process of escaping with the fleece to bring it to Jason. After they've escaped, there's a scene of Medea wandering the desert, in desperation because the gods are now silent, as though they're not there.

Euripides' play is focused more on Jason's breaking of his oath to Medea by deciding to wed the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth, abandoning Medea and the children he had with her. It's an exploration of how the use of such oaths is to insure insensitive people don't cause the violent emotional distress Medea experiences--her need for recompense becoming so strong that it overcomes her own sense of morality. Pasolini incorporates earlier events in the myth to focus on how both Medea and Jason are oathbreakers and the chaos, and frightening meaninglessness, that manifests after the destruction of dreams. Without the original purposes of ritual, Medea can only destroy in significance of destruction, physical destruction calculated to effect the most powerful emotional destruction.

Pasolini shows Medea's power as a priestess rests in her ability to act on dreams in ways that psychologically resonate in others to corresponding outcomes. We see two versions of her murder of the Corinthian princess (Margareth Clémenti)--first with the image of Medea's face overlaid on the footage as the poison in the gown Medea gives the princess causes the woman to burst into flames. After this, we see Medea's children give her the gown again, presumably in the "real" version of the event, and it's the sight of herself wearing the gown in a mirror that causes the princess to kill herself. By taking on the symbols of Medea's culture, perhaps the act inspires a fatal empathy in the princess and she realises for the first time that she's collaborating in Jason's oathbreaking. In any case, the results are precisely the same as in Medea's dream.

But Medea's acting for no god or community, only her own will, which in the nihilistic reality she's stranded herself in is the only possible motive. So the murder of her children isn't just a way to show Jason how she feels, it's an expression of an utterly hopeless interpretation of reality.

Twitter Sonnet #1040

In common sheaves of blue escapes it lands.
Reports of plants digesting thought returned.
The news arranged to cast across the bands.
A forest drapes the sky for all concerned.
Above the moon the double blinds descend.
Above the flame an Earth approached the sun.
On metal arms the orbs in space suspend.
In language written late the thought has run.
A metal quickly found erupts the mines.
The ores and yours allow the lead to lead.
In vain the veins avaunt to lunch betimes.
A node who knows the wind'll take the mead.
Outstripping grapes exceed the seedless price.
Redoubled looks advanced a vision twice.

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