D esire is a series of psychic signs that burn with unrequited longing, and guide us toward the people, places, or ideas that reveal the shadow side of our identity. It’s also a warning: ‘Danger: Minefield;’ and an invitation: ‘Enter Here.’ When we choose to walk this path, we trip the emotional and psychological mines that contain the explosive truths about ourselves; and if we feel our way through them, they flense our illusions, and give us the wisdom & courage to reclaim our power.
Stalking the Wild Shadow
In the late 1970’s, Andrei Tarkovsky, the transcendent genius of Russian Cinema, directed ‘Stalker,’ the film that taught me how to play in shadow. On the surface, it’s a forbidden journey to a place where your deepest desires will be fulfilled – but it’s essence is all ShadowPlay. At first you struggle, trying to understand what’s going on, while you desperately try to fill in the gaps. Then Tarkovsky slows time to a crawl, until the tension rips your expectations apart. And finally, when you’re ready to walk out in frustration – he simply blows your mind, and you just surrender. I’ve never had another cinematic experience to rival it; Tarkovsky understood on a profoundly spiritual level that ‘Stalker’ was an empty vessel, and his job was to break down our defenses, so we could fill the movie with our unspoken fears & desires. The film coaxed the shadow right out of me, and changed the way I looked at movies, and at myself.
Y ou won’t find films like ‘Stalker’ in theaters now, because studios & distributors have ceded groundbreaking cinematic storytelling to Television, where the long tail demographics are broader. In the race to capture eyeballs, TV & SVOD providers recognized early on that they had to go beyond their traditional comfort fare if they wanted keep current audiences, and attract new viewers who’ve seen it all, and are hungry for intensely creative content.
Say what you will about the highly polished, ‘Matinee Idol’ image of Tyrone Power, he was a fearless actor, and his favorite role was ‘Stanton Carlisle’ in Ed Goulding’s Film Noir classic, ‘Nightmare Alley.’ The film was photographed by the great Lee Garmes, who worked with my grandfather back in the Golden Age, and turned me on to ‘Alley’ when I was a kid. Power’s character is a manipulative carnival barker who rises to fame as a famous clairvoyant – then is blackmailed by his twisted psychotherapist who’s taped his cynical admission that he’s a fraud. In the end, Stanton spirals into alcoholism and despair, and is forced to take a job as a sideshow ‘Geek,’ eating live chickens and wallowing in his self-made hell. It doesn’t shake your soul like ‘Stalker,’ but it exposes the fear, guilt & shame that the shadow of blind ambition casts. It’s one of those films that illustrate Nietzsche’s quote: ‘…if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.’ Just remember, the abyss represents fear & personal judgement – and when you cease to judge, fear dissolves, and the abyss becomes a mirror.
F ilm Noir was a reflection of doubt, an exploration into the tarry depths of shifting morality and unseen motivations. During WWII, movies & propaganda supported the American ideal that we were ‘Good Guys,’ the honorable, fair minded champions of democratic principles & human rights. But the returning troops had spent too much blood and soul to swallow that somatic pill, and they struggled against the darkness they experienced in war, and in the new shadows cast by the paranoia of the emerging Atomic age. Think of the shadowy propaganda that you encounter today, does it fill you with energy, or drain your spirit – does it serve you, or do you serve it?
In the Dark of Night
Some years back, after experiencing the stunning deaths of the three men who had the greatest impact on my life & art: Filmmakers Don Levy, Ed Emshwiller, and my brilliant Mentor, Alexander Mackendrick, I experienced a truly shattering ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’ I’m no stranger to loss, and all too familiar with the five stages of grief, but this time was different, this time my consciousness lifted me out of the darkness, so I could hear a call; an invitation; a demand to Stand & Deliver.
If you’ve been perusing these posts, you know I have an affinity for the wildly creative founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung. Jung experienced a similar experience in 1913, which led him on a sixteen year psychic odyssey that culminated in his psycho-mystical opus, ‘The Red Book,’ and the theories of Collective Unconscious, Archetypes, and Individuation. This was a monumental act of ShadowPlay that the world benefits from to this day, proving that the science of the mind, is also the Art of Playing with Shadow.
In the Dark of Night – part 2
Mindful of that demand, I started shaping a Neo-Noir film with my best friend & writing partner, Steve Pesce. As we worked out the story, I experienced a deep ‘pulling’ in my psyche that compelled me to go solo, and after three exhausting weeks of intense ShadowPlay, I had an astoundingly ‘twisty’ first draft that turned the genre, and me, on our heads. After some polishing I approached Sir. Patrick Stewart (pre-knighthood), who praised the script and allowed me to ‘attach’ him; I was elated, and suddenly scared to death – did I mention that ShadowPlay is not for the faint of heart?
I was scared because the script ferociously welded the most vulnerable parts of my past into the characters & story, and when it earned that greenlight, it meant my deepest emotional truths would be splashed on the big screen. Scary indeed. Then the indie market tanked, the distributor went under, and I shelved the project until the market reinvented itself, but the entire experience taught me a priceless lesson: Freeing your shadows will open the world up for you in ways you never thought possible. It not only provides insight & wisdom, but it electrifies your imagination, infuses you with confidence & passion, attracts allies, and helps you bring your work to life.
The ShadowPlay of Expression
The transcendent master of German expressionism, Franz Marc, painted ‘The fate of the animals,’ in 1916, just before his tragic death at Verdun, during ‘The Great War.’ The painting erupts – like the artillery shell that eventually killed him – splintering color into vivid shards of pain & sorrow that represent the death of innocence, and the senseless violence of war. We are the ‘Animals’ here, and the painting is not only an indictment of WWI, but a premonition of the many wars to come. Artists like Marc painted the faces of darkness that swam in the shadows of Germany before the outbreak of WWII, and many were condemned as degenerates by zealots bent on establishing the torchlit illusion of Teutonic ‘Greatness.’ ‘Ware the ides of March my friend, the shadows whisper that history repeats itself, unless we are brave enough to rise above it and take positive action.
P laying the Shadows involves faith in your innate ability to connect. All works of art are expressions, and all expressions are works of art. No matter how you choose to communicate your truth, no matter how many shadows you use to create depth, you are a ‘Life Artist,’ which means that illuminating your shadows, helps you illuminate ALL shadows. Once you step through the dark mirror, you’ll have a new appreciation of yourself, and a deeper understanding of how shadow shapes the world around us.
Why ‘ShadowPlay’ is Essential
Are there are fewer shadows in the connected world we live in? Maybe. The light of information technology is spreading ideas – the story engines of thought – like wildfire. But not all stories illuminate, many obscure & alienate, and our ability to see their naked manipulation of emotion, is key to the survival of civilization. In ‘What’s in a Story‘ I touched on how story shapes everything we are, and hope to be, and now I’m injecting ShadowPlay into the mix. ShadowPlay is essential to understanding the framework of behavior that drives humanity.
U nderstanding the mechanics of emotion & behavior gives you the conscious freedom to embrace the genius of positive change. Change can be frightening, but when you help guide others through it, you receive two precious gifts: Friendship & Wisdom. Friendship with the ‘other.’ and wisdom that reminds you that there is no ‘other.’
When you step into this Sandbox, you’re playing at night, so don’t be surprised if you stub a toe, or bump your head while your digging in. We’ve explored similar territory in other posts, but ShadowPlay requires more patience and persistence, because you have to feel your way through your own emotional resistance before your Fierce Perception & creativity can work their revelatory magic.
1. The Nature of Shadow • Creating shadows is a learned process, a psychic conditioning established by family, friends, peers, teachers and the society at large. It’s purpose is to retrofit our consciousness to fit social norms, so we ‘fit’ into acceptable roles. The result of this harsh activity is a crazy story quilt of ‘square pegs & round holes’ that leave us feeling incomplete, powerless and disposable. When you embrace your shadow, you are retrieving the ‘missing’ pieces of your identity, and re-making yourself into the completely powerful, indispensably wonderful person that you’ve been all along.
2. Respect Your Underworld-self • Remember, your shadow knows who you are, so you need to approach it with complete honesty and acceptance. Sit quietly, take five deep breaths, and wait for the shadow to send you an invitation – an emotion, image, memory, or thought. This is the thread that you’ll follow, and it’ll help you ‘feel’ your way to what the shadow wishes to reveal. If fear comes up, acknowledge it, then let it go – it’s a sign that you’re on the right path.
3. Keep it frosty • As you work your way down the rabbit hole, keep in mind that shadows can be hotspots, and if you start to burn with them, instead of burn through them, you’ll blacken your mirror, and obscure the wisdom they’re desperately trying to show you. Shadows need acceptance & understanding – heated emotions just get in the way.
4. Meet the Shadow • Shadows are so used to being shut away, denied & ignored, that they absolutely love your attention! Get to know them, be patient with their quirks, and listen closely, because when you do, they’ll reveal their truth. And remember to ask as many questions as you want – shadows love dialogue, it’s their favorite way to play.
5. Embrace the Shadow • After you’ve learned all you need to know, invite the shadow into your life and celebrate the meeting with a warm embrace, and a few words of gratitude. Walking your shadow into the light, transforms it into pure energy, and you can use that energy to create anything.
K eep playing with your shadows on a regular basis, the more you do, the easier it gets. Whenever you experience a dark thought, or troubled feeling, dive right in – reclaiming your Shadow side will keep your mind clear; your imagination strong, and your heart open to this amazing journey that we’re on.
Dancing in the Dark
When your Shadows pull you toward them and the music starts to play, dance. We all long for connection and our shadows are no different, they’re just brimming with the elastic beat of memory, and the bliss of stories that are waiting to be set free. What you judge, you push away – what you accept, you own. And when you own your shadows, you step out of fear & shame, and into grace. So enjoy the dance, my magnificent friend!
A few ShadowPlays that I fully embrace:
Photo Credits – Main: Swodesh Shakya ; Stalker: via Wikimedia Commons, Fair use license; Don Levy: from The Times Educational Supplement, October 1, 1965, Fair Use License; Ed Emshwiller: via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use License; Alexander Mackendrick: via Wikimedia Commons, Fair Use License; Carl Jung: via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; Franz Marc ‘The Fate of the Animals:’ via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.