The Phantom Empire
by Geoffrey O’Brien
Norton, 281 pp., $20.00
Wayang Kulit, the Javanese shadow puppet theater, is a form of cinema that goes back at least a thousand years. The stories of Wayang are mostly from the Hindu epics, brought to the Javanese kingdoms from India after the second century. The characters are timeless and still appear in various reincarnations on our own movie screens: the good man trapped on the wrong side, the romantic hero, the wicked schemer, the wise servantclown, and so on. The Javanese believe that the puppets represent the ancestral spirits and that the dalang, or priest-puppeteer, enables the audience to communicate with the tribal ancestors by projecting their forms on the screen, and mimicking their voices. The audience sits on either side of the screen: some like to see the shadows flickering through the cloth, but the cognoscenti prefer to sit on the side of the dalang, to watch his technique.
The sun has set. It is a sultry night. The dalang lights an oil lamp, the symbol of eternal life, and lifts a beautifully worked triangular leather object called the gunungan, the tree of life, at the center of the screen. It is the sign that the show or, perhaps better, the ceremony, is about to begin.
Gore Vidal, in his book Screening History, deplores the lack in contemporary American cinema of what he calls “tribal narratives.” He believes, for the best liberal reasons of course, that Americans need national myths to point the way toward a better, more coherent, more humane future. The Americans need “that vision thing,” inspired by the projected images of such sacred ancestral spirits as Lincoln and Jefferson. Vidal fears, however, that the Americans will never get it, because “the Japanese are in control” and “they will shape our dreams in the end.”
When Edgar Reitz, the brilliant German director of Heimat, saw the American soap opera Holocaust come to life, if that is the word, on his German television screen, he reacted furiously. The Americans, he said, “have stolen our history through Holocaust.” And now the French are up in arms about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Free trade in culture, it is feared, will lead to the total victory of Hollywood imperialism, by allowing unrestricted imports of American entertainment. As the film director Claude Berri put it recently: “If culture cannot be treated as an exception in GATT negotiations, Europe’s cultural identity will die.” This language might sound odd in a secular age, where artists should be expected to speak for themselves, rather than as priestly conducts of ancestral voices, but clearly the cinema has retained some of the magical, mythical power that people, on the whole, have stopped looking for in literature, or even music.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s delirious book is not much concerned with tribal narratives; it is concerned with the magic of film tout court. It could have been called Confessions of a Movie Junkie, except that O’Brien believes that we are all caught up in the …