The Trickster in Contemporary Film
Published by Routledge in October 2011
This book discusses the role of the trickster figure in contemporary film against the cultural imperatives and social issues of modernity and postmodernity, and argues that cinematic tricksters always reflect psychological, economic and social change in society. It covers a range of films, from Charlie Chaplin’s classics such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) to contemporary comedies and dramas with ‘trickster actors’ such as Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron-Cohen, Andy Kaufman and Jack Nicholson.
The Trickster in Contemporary Film offers a fresh perspective on the trickster figure not only in cinema but in Western culture in general. Alongside original film analyses, it touches upon a number of psychosocial issues including sovereignty of the individual, tricksterish qualities of the media, and human relationships in the mercurial digital age.
Further topics of discussion include:
- common motifs in trickster narratives
- the trickster and personal relationships
- gonzo-trickster and the art of comic insurrection.
Employing a number of complementary approaches such as Jungian psychology, film semiotics, narrative structure theories, Victor Turner’s concept of liminality and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, this book is essential reading for students and scholars of film, as well as anyone with an interest in analytical psychology and wider critical issues in contemporary culture.
Christopher Hauke’s foreword to this book can be read below:
It is all too easy to feel cheated by a book title. Initially raised expectations can be dashed after the first twenty pages. But what you are holding is the reverse of this. What is the opposite of feeling cheated? Being unexpectedly, substantially rewarded, that’s what!
The Trickster in Contemporary Film offers so much more than its straightforward title suggests. The book manages to include just about every example of the movie trickster from the expected Dumb and Dumber (still hilarious and subversive after innumerable viewings) and Jim Carrey’s brilliant performance inThe Mask, to the unexpected such as Jack Nicholson’s films and – a reminder we could not do without – the work of Charlie Chaplin and his Modern Times. Before we are made fully aware of the scope of her theme and how far she will extend it, Helena dives straight in to remind us how the trickster,
‘reflects the human condition, with its ups and downs, and its explosive mixture of the tragic and the comic….[while] this is also a book about the psychology and anthropology of failure and success’
The trickster has huge significance for our own modern times, and the cinema screen is the primary site for its projection,
‘because cinema tends to be the psychological mirror of society’
Helena prepares the ground for us first by going into the anthropology and mythology of the trickster figure as it has appeared across the world and over many centuries. Unlike standard texts on the trickster, her approach is individually carved to her own subject matter introducing the character of the trickster almost like one would a genre in film. Drawing on examples from all over the world, she covers all the trickster tropes such as boundary crossing, the body and its scatological events, sexuality, the penis and loss of control, and the strange link between the human and the animal, the outraged and the outrageous. Helena is a film scholar who can find and link accurate film examples to the mythological character, but she is also a Jungian film scholar and this is where we hit bedrock. Carl Jung was a psychologist who reckoned all of humanity had ways of seeing and behaving which lay ‘beneath’ both the conscious mind and the personal unconscious. Myths and characters such as the Trickster found in human stories world-wide form part of the evidence for this collective unconscious. The Trickster is a archetype, part of our unconscious human potential found in everyone and every culture.
Jung discovered the Winnebago trickster stories to be rich in material relevant to the psychology of modern humans. Riding on the carnival trailer that is modern film, The Trickster in Contemporary Film offers a new perspective on,
‘how contemporary film presents the tricky relationship between consciousness and the unconscious in the “civilized” mind’.
Like many recent texts that use Jungian thinking, Helena is picking up on something that is at the heart of Jung’s psychology but has too often been subsumed beneath attention to Jungian psychology purely as a clinical treatment. Central to Jung’s psychology is the idea that modern consciousness suffers from an over-reliance on the rational, the linear, the pragmatic and the profitable. This perspective constitutes Jung’s
‘psycho-political evaluations of modernity and its discontents’
as Helena calls it. Our contemporary neurosis is a neurosis of post-industrial, post-Enlightenment, positivistic and capitalist society. Helena acknowledges the post-Jungian Andrew Samuels (who pointed out the link between Hermes, the trickster and the shape-shifting nature of capitalism) when she asserts
‘the trickster dwells at the heart of the capitalist system’
What could be a better theme than the Trickster to explore the wider field of the challenges to modern capitalist life from Julian Assange and Wikileaks on the internet to films about Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron-Cohen’s real life twisting of realities that equally challenge our idea of what is ‘acceptable’. As Helena says,
‘The trickster in….film is often a metaphor for repressed potentiality, of futurity, of dormant change…..an intrinsically rebellious and artistic power in the human psyche which saves us from mental entropy and ensures our progress as individuals.’
In The Trickster in Contemporary Film Helena has delved into the archives and deals us an intertextual hand rich in originality and surprises. She launches off from Kerenyi and Radin noting how the trickster’s function
‘is to add disorder to order….to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted’
She then contextualises this function within the concept of habitus devised by the philosopher-anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. As a dynamic between the individual and his surroundings, the habitus produces individual and collective practices
‘deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action’
which are resistant to examination or change and act to the advantage of those who hold power. Helena points out how,
‘This view directly taps into the socio-political role of the trickster principle, which is a chaotic, spontaneous force whose primary aim is to challenge the universal influence of the social order.’
This position is backed-up further using the work of Clifford Geertz, Marshall Berman and Zygmunt Baumann involving different versions of post-modern social critique. Historically, using Bahktin on the
“thousand year-old development of popular culture”
Helena asserts our movies continue the tradition of Cervantes and Rabelais,
‘The trickster of modernity is the trickster of the emerging capitalist world – closely associated with the problematic relationship between the individual and society.’
This is of course another major theme of Jung’s – the urge towards individuation in every individual and the strain that ‘mass man’ and conformity puts on the psychological need for personal authenticity. As the book says,
‘The trickster’s efforts to become a man, and an independent one at that, can be seen as both ludicrous and heroic because….natural and social powers will always be impeding the individual’s ability to achieve autonomy.’
Helena deepens her analysis of the trickster function by incorporating Victor Turner’s and van Gennep’s understanding of the liminal – from the Latin limen for threshold, the locale of the boundary-crossing trickster. As she writes,
‘Between the points of “detachment” and “reattachment” there lies a grey middle area of uncertainty, turbulence and chanciness. This is the playground of the trickster’
The trickster is the shadow of the conventional character and the shadow of his conventional world as we witness in the characters played by Adam Sandler in Click or Rik Mayall in Drop Dead Fred or Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. Helena goes into the playground of these films, their scripts and structures, to uncover what they are reflecting back to contemporary audiences of our own world – what needs questioning and what would be possible if things changed. As she says,
‘“Crossing the boundary”, in narrative terms, is the trigger, the beginning of the conflict.’
Her thematic analysis leads us through discussions of the role of finding love, new ways of connecting and disconnecting (Helena is a Facebook stalwart!), geeks and The Social Network (an insightful discussion of the degree to which movies need to reflect the ‘truth’ or tell a true story), the trickster as therapist (Anger Management), money, the middle classes, the economy and the birth of the Picaro, the Gonzo-trickster Borat and Andy Kaufman – two supremely executed challenges to the ‘truth’ and the border between fiction and documentary.
As I wrote at the start of the foreword, this book surprises us and gratifies us with its scope, its detail and how, like the trickster himself, it challenges our beliefs about the function of popular culture, in particular, these trickster film ‘comedies’. This book tells us how films can speak to us, inform us and enhance our lives – once we have writers like Helena Bassil-Morozow and Carl Jung to guide us. Because this book is also about contemporary society and its values, and the psychological resources we may bring to challenge its “discontents”. Helena Bassil-Morozow asks us to take the trickster seriously. We can laugh and be outraged, but not laugh and simply move on. As she says,
‘individuation is mad because raising your voice….against “higher powers” is bound to be dangerous…..the learning path is fraught with errors. Only fools are prepared to leave the safety of the womb/mother/nature/the village/paradise, and “go and seek their fortune”’.
This is Helena’s invitation to us with her book. Be a fool! Leave your safety! But, above all, be prepared to learn.