“But the human being is the only animal capable of knowing death as the end inevitable for itself, and the span of old age for this human organism, consciously facing death is a period of years longer than the whole lifetime of any other primate.”
Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, p. 85
“Do you guys ever think about dying?”
We called it “Barbenheimer,” a reference to the simultaneous release (July 21, 2023) of two very different films with nothing in common except for their box office ambitions. Barbie (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2023) draws initially on a nostalgia for a personal past, while Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures, 2023) directs our gaze toward an unthinkable collective future. Critics suggested that this was Warner Bros. attempt at counterprogramming—give the audience a real alternative. Surely, three hours contemplating the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear fission weapons systems will leave a vast percentage of the public desperate for lighter fare.
No one anticipated Barbenheimer. “AMC theaters, the largest chain of its kind in the world, recently announced that upwards of 20,000 patrons have purchased tickets for a double feature” (Yahoo! News).
With tarot card number 13 as the prompt for this month’s reflection, I am inspired to make the case that death united the cinematic pairing on the Barbenheimer opening weekend. Executives at both Warner Bros. and Universal are banking on our capacity as an audience to contemplate our own extinction.
In contemplating her own extinction, Barbie initiates the hero’s journey in what seems an almost deliberate evocation of Inanna’s famous descent to the underworld. Her relationship with Ken has its parallel in that of Ishtar and Tammuz, Venus and Adonis, Isis and Osiris, Mary and St. Joseph and, of course, Inanna and Dumuzi. As the University of Pennsylvania recently posted on their ancient Mesopotamia site, Inanna “does not have a spouse per se, but has an ambivalent relationship with her lover Dumuzi/Tammuz.” That has Ken all over it. (It seems that patriarchy has a competing theme in the very fabric of our collective unconscious: man as supernumerary.)
While Innana meets her shadow side in her sister Ereshkigal, Barbie learns the facts of life from Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon), who tells her she must leave Barbieland.
From the “great above” she set her mind toward the “great below…
To the nether world she descended…
And let’s not forget the accessories.
Barbie has more accessories than Inanna, but she would approve of the goddess’ couture: Lapis lazuli, gold ring, necklace, shugurra crown. With each degree of passage into the nether regions, an accessory is discarded until she is, in Campbell’s words, “the naked goddess.” With a vulnerable heart, stripped of her defenses, she experiences the unthinkable: her own demise.
It is the awareness of death, according to James Anderson, a Kyoto University primatologist, that “may be one of the cognitive differences between us and [other] great apes” (discovermagazine.com). And it is the awareness of death that accounts for the strange affinity between two superficially different audiences: the cosplay crowd and the ban the bomb bunch.
In the other eponymously named film, Oppenheimer, our hero seeks out his more famous mentor, Albert Einstein and they have a conversation about the possibility of the end of the world, and their part in it. We do not actually get to hear the words aloud until the end of the story, but the men are, as Barbie put it, thinking about death. But they’re thinking about death on a scale which would make her fully rotatable head spin. Oppenheimer foresees, like John of Patmos (author of the Bible’s scariest book, Revelations), the end of the world, but without those opaque, first millennium symbols. Still, it’s the same idea. Patmos and Alamos provide the eschatological roadmaps particular to their times. Armageddon this way.
One big difference between the Patmos and Alamos—the former was a vision, the latter an historical event. On July 16, 1945, the world’s first A bomb was detonated and for the first time eye-witness accounts superseded existential fantasies. Turning to the Bhagavad Gita for context if not for guidance, the “father of the A-bomb” found these words which he uttered aloud with the most dreadful self-awareness: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
The Gita also provides theological absolution to Oppenheimer: Dharma (duty) must be fulfilled and the bloodshed cannot be held against him.
Small consolation. Neither Cillian Murphy’s Oppy nor Margo Robbie’s Barbie can ever return to their respective happy places, his with the chalk boards and adoring students, hers populated with variations of herself in a world without conflict. Campbell would recognize the characters’ reactions as perfectly appropriate to the encounter with mortality.
The concerns of house, village, and field boundary fade, and the lineaments of a dark mystery appear gradually from the night that is both without and within. The mind is summoned to a new task; one, however, which, like suffering and rapture, is a grave and constant factor in the experience of the human race” (Masks of God, Vol. 1: Primitive Mythology, p. 160).
Robert Oppenheimer finds solace in the image of Vishnu, the immortal charioteer whose effulgence rivals the explosion witnessed at the Trinity Test Site: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky,” the physicist and Sanskrit scholar remembers from verse 11 of the Gita, “that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Shocked at his own handiwork, the Princeton academic becomes a kind of renunciate, giving up any further pursuits of building a better bomb.
Barbie’s awakening reminds us of a different chariot ride. Remember how Shakyamuni (Buddha’s tribal name) snuck out of his palace with his driver, Channa, witnessing for the first time, old age, sickness, and death? Barbie’s chariot is a pink Corvette. Instead of Channa at the reins, she has Ken in the back seat. But the destination remains the same: a trip to human reality, and we’re along for the ride.
The movie ends and the audience disperses. Some gather by the ice cream parlor, many dressed in pink, head to foot. Don’t be fooled. Pink is no longer the color of frivolity and this after-theater crowd is, I believe, the visible symptom of a maturing civilization. You know a civilization is maturing when its movies are warnings and its toys harbor thoughts of death.
After a successful career as a television writer in the 1970s and '80s with such credits as M*A*S*H and Maude, John's interest in story became increasingly academic. He transitioned to a new field, music, with a Masters in Conducting, then earned a PhD in Mythology from Pacifica University.
His main musical ensemble, Shantigarh, emphasizes a wide range of liturgical music styles, and its membership swells to as many as one hundred voices when they present John's original score for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, CA, at an event broadcast nationally each January.
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