Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner theorized about what is called the “ritual process,” broken into three phases: separation, liminal, and reincorporation. Turner was building upon the work of many before him but did most of his work in expanding upon the idea of the liminal phase. For him, when one is in the liminal period of the ritual, they are in-between, in the process of becoming something entirely new. If we think of a ritual like the rite of passage into adulthood (such as a bar or bat mitzvah), when one is performing the prescribed rituals they are neither a child nor an adult. They do not belong to the society that they were formerly in, but neither do they belong to the new community that they are entering into. They are in a limbo state, or, put another way, they are “out of joint” with normal temporality and being.
In one of my early papers on film music written for a doctoral seminar on ethnomusicology, I used this three-fold ritual model to describe the process of seeing a movie, with the actual viewing as the liminal phase. You have been separated from society proper when you enter into the movie theatre (indeed, these days you have to be reminded to actually separate yourself from the outside and “silence your cellphone”), then you experience the ritual viewing a film, and when it is over you are reincorporated into society a changed person. You are different. You are now part of the group that has seen that film.
While most films we see do not leave a lasting impression, nor do they truly change how we see the world, a good film will have such an effect. A thoughtful film. A film that lingers and haunts you in the days and weeks that follow.
To me, the definition of such a film is one that uses this ritual process, uses its few hours of having us separated from society, to affect a change in the viewer. Granted, every film will not affect people the same way. I might react one way to a film while you will have a very different viewing experience. Rituals affect us all in different ways, and it has to do with personal experience, background, and the preparation/separation phase. What you bring into the ritual vs. what I bring with me.
Such it is that I eventually came to the realization that if I were to put all my emotions and musings from my years in Colorado and Virginia, really my entire life if I am being honest, within some meaningful, explicable context, I would have to do so via a form I knew all too well: critical analysis. Even more precisely, the methodology of my dissertation: film analysis and close reading. However, this time instead of using the lens of the relationship between film and music, I would turn inward and examine my own relationship and reactions to the film.
I would dive into what happened within the liminal space of viewing a film and how these films have shaped my life, especially my time living in Colorado and the years leading up to it.
* * *
In my professional life I am a librarian and an archivist in addition to being a trained musician and musicologist. My life is literally haunted by the past. I work inside buildings that are literal monuments to humanity’s past achievements. My mandate is to preserve and make accessible the collective knowledge of generations of scholars and thousands of years of recorded history. I wander stacks of books that have may have only been read by a few, and page through the files of teachers, poets, playwrights, and politicians. I am haunted by ghosts every time I go to work and try to instruct the next generation of scholars, electricians, engineers, ethnographers, or any number of professions, all noble in their own right, on how to access this wealth of knowledge when so many would prefer to just use Google or Wikipedia.
We have the collective wisdom of our entire species at our fingertips, a mouse click away, yet few make it past the introduction of a Wikipedia entry, and even fewer click through to the references so lovingly curated by a fellow searcher. How best to communicate this knowledge down through to a new generation is my job; I am the medium via which it will hopefully be transferred to haunt a new generation. Yet, much like how the promise of technology to transform our lives has never been fully realized in any generation (from Guttenberg to Gates), the power of the internet to make everyone into an expert, to make the knowledge of academics accessible to all, has seemingly failed. Not only does the public seem indifferent to having a deep conversation with topics that have been discussed since humanity first put brush to cave wall, chisel to stone, quill to papyrus, there is also the problem that much of it is still locked away behind paywalls, inaccessible and useless to most. The promise of a future lost to the greed of late capitalism that has turned the internet from a tool to educate and enrich our lives into one to sell us more stuff and has literally turned us into a product. Our attention spans and personal data has been monetized.
Everywhere I turn in my life I am surrounded by ghosts. Ghosts of my past, ghosts of the past of my profession, and the looming ghosts of a future never realized as our society and culture slowly betray those things we were promised that the 21st century and the “information age” would bring. Instead of a utopian society brought about by technology stitching us together as one people on one world, we have social media fostering deep schisms within the fabric of our discourse. Instead of a leveling of financial barriers to entry, smart phones and other tech gadgets are expensive status symbols and serve to silently label the haves and the have nots.
And our media is increasingly haunted by these visions of the future and the past. Not only in various waves of nostalgic resurrections, but also in our ability to access past content more easily than ever before. These are our ghosts…my ghosts. Spectral visitors in the shape of films that haunt me to this day.
The specific reasons why these films have lingered in my mind and their connection to the emotions that I was wrestling with in Virginia are myriad, but regardless these films haunt me. And I want to exorcise them.
* * *
A haunted film is an inherently personal thing. Not everyone is haunted by the same thing, and while I, and others, feel like we are living in a very haunted, liminal time with media and culture to match, everyone does not feel the same. The experiences within the ritual/liminal space of the movie theatre (be it a proper theatre, your home television, or just a computer screen) will always be dependent on the individual. But this is my quest though the hauntings of my past, present, and future. The films that shaped me, shaped my outlook, and that I will carry with me as I continue to become a new person with every passing moment. A person that is very different than the one I imagined becoming when I started my PhD, or when I started my first masters degree, or when I started my undergraduate…or any person I thought I might become. The futures I projected for myself lost to time and crushing reality.
An on-going ritual process.