Film is the supreme medium for mythmaking. The gods and heroes of mythology are both larger than life and deeply human; they teach us about the world, and they tell us a good story. Similarly, our experience of film is both distant and intimate. Cinematic techniques—panning, tracking, zooming, and the other tools in the filmmaker's toolbox—create a world that is unlike reality and yet realistic at the same time. We are passive spectators, but we also have a personal relationship with the images we are seeing. In Cinematic Mythmaking, Irving Singer explores the hidden and overt use of myth in various films and, in general, the philosophical elements of a film's meaning. Mythological themes, Singer writes, perform a crucial role in cinematic art and even philosophy itself.
Singer incisively disentangles the strands of different myths in the films he discusses. He finds in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve that Barbara Stanwyck's character is not just the biblical Eve but a liberated woman of our times; Eliza Doolittle in the filmed versions of Shaw's Pygmalion is not just a statue brought to life but instead a heroic woman who must survive her own dark night of the soul. The protagonist of William Wyler's The Heiress and Anieszka Holland's Washington Square is both suffering Dido and an awakened Amazon. Singer reads Cocteau's films—including La Belle et la Bête, Orphée, and The Testament of Orpheus—as uniquely mythological cinematic poetry. He compares Kubrickean and Homeric epics and analyzes in depth the self-referential mythmaking of Federico Fellini in many of his movies, including 8½. The aesthetic and probing inventiveness in film, Singer shows us, restores and revives for audiences in the twenty-first century myths of creation, of the questing hero, and of ideals—both secular and religious—that have had enormous significance throughout the human search for love and meaning in life.
Irving Singer Library
About the Author
Irving Singer was Professor of Philosophy at MIT. He was the author of the trilogies The Nature of Love and Meaning in Life, Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing-Up, Mozart and Beethoven: The Concept of Love in Their Operas, all published by the MIT Press, and many other books.
"[Singer's] book is best treated not as any kind of rigorous critical analysis, but rather as a rhapsodic excursion through a gallery of his favourite movies and cinematic themes aimed at sparking off similarly discursive enthusiasms in the reader. Writing it, he says, was 'life-enhancing and a great deal of fun'—and it is in that spirit that we are invited to respond."—Times Higher Education
"Irving Singer deploys his mastery of the Western traditions of myth with sustained elegance and a total lack of pretentiousness. His readings of major Hollywood and European films—and related stories, novels, plays, and operas—are perceptive, intellectually subtle, and quietly revisionist. Singer has a great teacher's gift for making fresh, unexpected links among some of the best-known works of cinematic art. A joy to read."
—Edward Baron Turk, author of Child of Paradise: Marcel Carn
"Claiming to be neither film theory nor film history, Singer's book invites readers to participate in an exploration of figures who continue to capture our imaginations as a result of their moral and erotic complexity, figures such as the remade woman, the suffering female, and the male hero. Through close analyses of individual films, framed within a context of wide-ranging references to literary, theatrical, operatic and philosophical traditions, Singer invites us to reflect on romantic myth as a site of persistence and change."
—Karen Beckman, Director, Cinema Studies, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
"Combining the moviegoer's passion with the philosopher's analytic precision, Irving Singer shows how cinema has reinvigorated myths from times past to become our new folklore. Step by step we discover how films gather their iconic power and authority from Ovid, Homer, and others. Singer switches his critical abilities to maximum wattage, revealing that films work their magic by putting the banal and the ordinary in touch with the sublime."
—Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University
"Cinematic Mythmaking is an important addition to Irving Singer's on-going studies of the art of the filmmaker as an exploration of perennial philosophic questions embodied in a new imaginative form. Here he navigates the relations between what is perhaps the oldest mode of narrative—mythic thinking—and the unique resources and constraints of our youngest art. He writes about this 'composite art' with an admirable balance of analytic lucidity and personal engagement. In his attentive, nuanced readings of exemplary films from the 1930s to the near present he demonstrates how these movies 'restore' and 'revive' our access to traditional ways of addressing the human condition. Avoiding any premature formulation of a Grand Theory or synoptic historical generalizations, Singer frames his questions with the precision of a philosopher and renders the imaginative experience of these films with the immediacy of a master critic."
—Richard Macksey, Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins University