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Take the Red Popcorn: Gnosticism in Cinema

In the mid-90’s, when I was about to finish college, I stumbled upon Carlos Castañeda’s ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ in my university library. Since his name kept popping up in all the esoteric magazines I used to read back in those days, I was really interested in getting to learn more about this alleged sorcerer’s apprentice, who helped kick-start the Counterculture in the 1960’s, by renouncing his path as a UCLA anthropologist to instead follow in the footsteps of Don Juan, a Yaqui brujo who was in possession of a magical tradition harking back to thousands of years, and who showed Carlos how to expand the perceptions of his consciousness by using –among other things– the  psychedelic properties of ‘power plants’.

By 1999, I was hooked into Castañeda, and I mean REALLY hooked. I’d already read the 4 main books in his bibliography —‘Teachings…’, ‘A Separate Reality’, ‘Journey to Ixtlán’ & ‘Tales of Power’— and even though I didn’t set out to acquire peyote to communicate with Mescalito –the plant spirit said to inhabit inside the astringent buds of the desert cactus– I had already started to experiment with Don Juan’s tips on how to attain lucidity in your dreams –to my utter amazement, this shit worked!

And so when I went to the movies and watched The Matrix for the 1st time, it hit me like a bare-fisted punch of Agent Smith: This Sci-Fi story which propelled Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving into stardom was based on Castañeda’s philosophy!

It was all so obvious! Neo was Carlos, Morpheus was Don Juan, and the red pill symbolized the power plants the brujos used to enter a ‘state of non-ordinary reality’ and help them train their will to accomplish one of the greatest feats in the magical tradition,  known in the Castañedian lore as ‘Stopping the world’ (my suspicions that the Wachowski siblings were Castañeda fans, were later confirmed when his name was mentioned by one of Tom Hanks’ many characters in Cloud Atlas).

So now you know why I chose the silly moniker.

Of course, the Wachowskis took inspiration from many other different sources to create their Magnum Opus: The Cyberpunk of William Gibson, the strong visual aesthetics in Japanese Anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell; but standing very prominently above all of them, are the writings of Philip K. Dick.

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Philip K Dick

Despite his prodigious creativity, I feel Dick would have probably been incredulous of the cult-like status he’s acquired in contemporary Sci-Fi; especially since it was only if the final years of his life when he finally started to enjoy a modicum of financial success, brought largely by Ridley Scott’s cinematic interpretation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? –sadly, he died of a stroke four months before the premiere of Blade Runner.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Dick was doomed to become more popular in death than when his stories were being published in pulp magazines: His writing was just too weird and too contrarian for the utopian aspirations of an American public who still dreamed of colonizing space and building a better tomorrow, thanks to the blessings of science. But Dick could read between the lines of the Life magazine articles, and he wasn’t fooled by the Rockwell-like propaganda, which failed to reveal the fact that the price for that bright future was conformity and unquestionable obedience to Authority; he was ahead of his generation, and at the same time he was a man from an ancient era, who rejected the modern world the same way a Christian mystic rebelled against the Roman empire.

For you see, the overarching theme in Philip K. Dick’s writing is the same basic idea that the most radical branch of the early Christians were claiming 2000 years ago: That this world, what we humans recognize as reality, is nothing but an illusion; an illusion put before our eyes to imprison us by powerful entities, which seek to keep us trapped and deceived for their own selfish benefit.

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First pages of “Gospel of Thomas” coptic manuscript

Those early Christians were known as Gnostics, and thanks to the discovery of a few of their texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, we can now learn more about their religious beliefs, which were furiously suppressed by the Church for many centuries. Yet I’m of the opinion that Gnosticism is a universal concept, that is continuously recycled and presented anew within a different format for a new generation.

The medium may change, but the main idea is repeated over and over again:

Wake up!

The world is not what it seems to be!

You’re trapped and you don’t even know it!

It still fascinates me how around the same time the Wachowskis released the Matrix into our cultural consciousness, there were OTHER films that fall into what I choose to call Gnostic Cinema; it’s almost as if the zeitgeist was hinting at something just as we were about to start the new millennium. Below I list the 4 Gnostic films of the late 90’s :

 

Dark City

(US release date: 27 February 1998)

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With the exception of The Matrix, this film is probably THE best example of Gnostic cinema ever made. A Gothic metropolis immersed in perennial night, inhabited by people who are oblivious to the fact that they’re nothing but puppets manipulated by demonic entities, known simply as ‘the Strangers’. It’s through the unwilling collaboration of Dr. Daniel P. Schreber –played by Kiefer Sutherland– and the Strangers’ ability to mentally manipulate every element of the city itself –kind of like the way aliens are said to manipulate the very structure of Space and Time– that its inhabitants keep performing fake lives without ever snapping out of the imposed fantasy. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Dark City’s director Alex Proyas kept a copy of the Nag Hammadi texts in his personal library.

 

The Truman Show

(US release date: 5 June 1998)

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Yes, I know ‘Gnostic’ is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a movie starring Jim Carrey; though to be fair, the Canadian comedian has proved to have enough performing chops to play serious characters, and some titles in his filmography have a certain amount of ‘Gnosticism’ in their plot –e.g. The Majestic (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Truman Show is probably the jewel of his career, telling the story of a seemingly ordinary man living a seemingly unassuming life, who is actually a prisoner inside a world-size TV set peopled by actors who are in the know, including his wife and parents. It’s no wonder that since then the Truman Show delusion is now become a recognized psychiatric condition –although perhaps those who suffer it are saner than we think…

Also, readers of my late Red Pills of the Week column know I still expect the Voyager space probes to smash into some sort of transparent bubble circling our solar system.

 

The Matrix

(US release date: 31 March 1999)

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Y’all know I’m gonna be biased about it! The movie that influenced my online persona is THE embodiment of Gnosticism, perfectly translated to the 21st century mentality. How else do you explain the fact that serious scientists are currently studying the possibility of whether we live inside a computer simulation or not? The very phrase “taking the red pill” is now a universal metaphor for stepping outside of our social conditioning, and as a meaningful part of our cultural lexicon as “the Force will be with you.”

Also, after I watched the film and kept immersing in the work of Castañeda, I later found out that Don Juan eventually told Carlos that humans were being predated by an alien intelligence that fed on our most petty emotions.

We have a predator that came from the depths of the cosmos and took over the rule of our lives. Human beings are its prisoners. The predator is our lord and master. It has rendered us docile, helpless. If we want to protest, it suppresses our protest. If we want to act independently, it demands that we don’t do so…

Sorcerers believe that the predators have given us our systems of beliefs, our ideas of good and evil, our social mores.

They are the ones who set up our hopes and expectations and dreams of success or failure. They have given us covetousness, greed and cowardice. It is the predators who make us complacent, routinary and egomaniacal.

Though that doesn’t free us from the conundrum: Was Cypher right all along? Is ignorance a better choice than facing the Desert of the Real?

 

The Thirteenth Floor

(US release date: 28 May 1999)

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A decent mix of Sci-Fi/Thriller and even a bit of Film Noir, 13th Floor deserved a better success than what it received in the box office, and was probably eclipsed by the success of the Matrix. The Gnosticism in the film comes from its use of VR technology as a way to produce artificial worlds so thoroughly convincing, the A.I. characters inhabiting them have a hard time coping with the fact that they’re just a simulation, merely created for the pleasure of wealthy men. Might we humans fare better if we learned our existence was the decision of bored multidimensional entities?

 

These are my main examples of Gnostic Cinema, yet I’m well aware there are many other films that could very well fit into such a category. Can you think of other titles to add into the list? Share them with the rest of the Coppertops in the comment section!

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  • Andrew May

    Very interesting article. I’ve been reading Philip K. Dick since I was at school in the 70s, but only picked up the Gnosticism link after I’d read most of the novels! To add another perspective, I did a talk several years ago about the links between PKD, the Matrix and Wagner’s opera Parsifal: http://andrew-may.com/parsifal.htm

  • Very interesting! Thanks for pointing this out, since my only connection with Wagner until now was Bugs Bunny’s ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ 😛

  • Louis Proud

    The brilliant film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (the son of David and Angela Bowie), features strong gnostic elements. So far I’ve watched it four times, and I seem to gain something new from the film during every repeated viewing. I was so inspired and intrigued by the film that I ended up discussing it at length in my book The Secret Influence of the Moon, which also features a chapter on G. I. Gurdjieff’s notion of humanity being manipulated by, and “food” for, the Moon. (Of course, Gurdjieff once described his teaching as “esoteric Christianity,” so perhaps, to some degree, he was referring to Gnosticism.)

  • maya

    Might we humans fare better if we learned our existence was the decision of bored multidimensional entities?
    It is a good article RPJ, and I too have wondered if human life hasn’t been reduced to chessboard pieces with the whole good vs evil, black vs white game type concepts.

  • Thanks 🙂

    My current personal suspicion, is that this reality is a sort of videogame in which immortal souls seek to ‘level up’ by attaining more XP 😉

  • The film was never theatrically released here in Mexico. I doubt one could find it on (Mexican) Netflix :-/

  • Well said.

    And yes, one should always be mindful of ‘teachers’ who end up gaining a lot of control over their followers.

    As I wrote in my 2-part essay “The Teachings of Don Morpheus” I don’t really obsess much with whether Carlos invented the whole thing, or whether Don Juan really existed or not. I’m pretty sure Star Wars is entirely fictional, yet that does NOT diminish the validity of master Yoda’s teaching:

    “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

  • And, unlike the Matrix films, in this reality it is VERY difficult to tell them apart.

  • Thanks! My colleague Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent mentioned it to me on Twitter. Do you think it’s available online?

  • Excellent choice 🙂

  • Indeed!

  • Ah! Never heard of it before. Must add it to my popcorn bucket list 😉

  • You guys are leaving me a LOT of homework! 😛

  • Unlike a LOT of people, I LOVE Donnie Darko. Especially the scene with him and Frank:

    –“Why do you wear that stupid rabbit suit?”
    –“Why do you wear that stupid human suit?”

    I interpret the ‘umbilicus’ as Donnie’s capacity to see humans as worm-like 4th-dimensional beings, kinda like what Grant Morrison said in his Disinfo Con speech.

  • Oh, yes. Cocteau was definitely tapping into the Gnostic pool. That’s why Dan Brown made him a Grand Master of the Priory of Zion 😛

  • I really liked The Adjustment Bureau, with the scene in which Damon is explained why humans can’t have ‘free will.’ And of course, as a child of the 80’s I was smitten by the (by 80’s standards) complexity of Total Recall –and the fact it was shot in some parts of Mexico city 😉

    ‘The Fountain’ is one of my all-time favorites 🙂 I even listen to the soundtrack when I’m writing

    Indeed, 13th Floor and Dark City deserve more recognition.

  • “In your piece above RPJ, you explained it as “That this world, what we humans recognize as reality, is nothing but an illusion; an illusion put before our eyes to imprison us by powerful entities, which seek to keep us trapped and deceived for their own selfish benefit…” I take exception to this. I’m with PKD here, Powerful entities, whatever they are, or may be imagined to be are just that, a belief. I cannot verify there is any other entity out there. If EVERYTHING we know is an illusion, how can we grant the belief in something or of the existence of someone else? We simply can’t. What isn’t possible within illusion? In a shared reality we agree to, there may be maligned and powerful entities. Yet they exist within illusion, therefore they are a belief and not true.”

    Or maybe something out there exists which feeds off of our suffering and negative emotions, yet the ILLUSION is that they have power over us.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking A LOT lately. Something I call ‘the Perfect World Paradox’; whether, like Ayahuasca and all the other plant teachers keep telling us, we already live in Paradise, only we’re just too thick-headed to realize it 😉

    Hopefully we will be able to figure it out some day –or maybe when we’re not bound by the constrains of Space and Time 🙂

  • Mike

    “… this world, what we humans recognize as reality, is nothing but an illusion; an illusion put before our eyes to imprison us by powerful entities, which seek to keep us trapped and deceived for their own selfish benefit.”

    Given that this perhaps-perceived physical existence is indeed an illusion, then it would be just incredibly foolish to make assumptions on the hows and whys of its structure and purpose.

    We are an arrogant, self-absorbed species who can’t even begin to imagine the possibility that we are nothing more than infants in a nursery. We brag about our knowledge and science but fail to consider how history teaches us a very painful lesson; in a hundred years, we will be laughed at then just as we today laugh at those a century before us.

    If this life is but a mere illusion… then all our guesswork as to how and why may well be just as wispful.

  • “Or maybe something out there exists which feeds off of our suffering and negative emotions, yet the ILLUSION is that they have power over us.”

    Sure! why not? What isn’t possible within a dream? The only real interesting thing about that whole thing, is what allows us to give ‘them’ that perceived power over us. Beyond that, its kind of silly.

    “It’s something I’ve been thinking A LOT lately. Something I call ‘the Perfect World Paradox’; whether, like Ayahuasca and all the other plant teachers keep telling us, we already live in Paradise, only we’re just too thick-headed to realize it ;)”

    hmm, lets not just switch labels and and declare illusion as freedom. There IS work to do. Thick headed yes of course, necessarily so (else this whole thing would just fall apart right?) The first step, from what I can tell is the realization that you are trapped, completely. There is no shred of the truth within the container of untruth. can’t be, its just logical. But.. this is of course what we’re all doing. Searching for truth within untruth. Everybody is doing it, all the religions, and even science, our new religion. We take that first wrong step, assuming that within all of THIS there is some truth. Understand that, and you’ve just destroyed the universe.

    Ugh, how did i get sucked into truth talk in a comment section? lol! carry on..

  • ivr

    That is a very interesting sentiment; that the words, not the speaker or the writer is what matters. This can make for a very interesting game to play, namely juxtaposing sayings of one religion with another or secular philosopher with a religious one. Or fictional with non fictional for that matter.
    Interestingly in the Gospels of Judas Jesus essentially says the same thing, (heavy paraphrase here) How do you know me? Future generations won’t know me. In other words it is not the speaker but what is spoken. I don’t know if I buy that, but it is interesting.

  • Fair point. I guess the Gnostics inferred a malevolent intent on behalf of the illusionist entities, because they presumed their influence in the structures of authority governing our lives.

  • I agree. Seems to me, like a friend recently wrote to me in an e-mail, that obsessing on whether Don Juan really existed or not kinda misses the point.

    There are A LOT of valuable things I found in Castañeda’s philosophy, that I’ve tried to incorporate into my daily life. Like the idea of taking responsibility for your actions, or trying to be aware of the fact that we’re mortal beings, hence we must strive to live impeccable lives.

  • The thing I didn’t like about Castañeda’s philosophy, is that he presented the Universe as a predatory entity that, at best, showed an infinite indiffirence about our lives and suffering.

    But I suspect this is only a partial assessment. Sometimes I think the Universe is a cosmic test of sorts. Maybe a test created in order to encourage the rise of conscious beings capable of incredible things. Maybe entities that are a few steps ahead of us are afraid of our potential –kinda like Q in the Star Trek universe 😉

  • Alas, Hulu does not allow for international viewership.

    Hmmm, yes I think there’s something of a Gnostic sentiment in the intentions of the American forefathers.

  • LOL It’s what I do 😉

    What I (think) I mean is that this ‘imperfect’ world is perfect for allowing immortal souls to grow and evolve through the burden of being constrained by the pressures of Time and Space. Because once you are free of those constrains, there might not be the chance for growth.

    It’s something some religious schools –even the modern Spiritualist movement– profess: That spirits actively choose to be born in this world, through what some call “the soul contract”, in order to gather experience and learn from the mistakes they’ll make in this life.

    …Maybe 😉

  • Nittacci

    I tried to pick films from a time when real gnostics were making films.

    I still remember the first time I saw Wavelength in a theater, on a large screen. At first, it’s kind of stupid, then kind of funny (because it’s a shot of a room where nothing much is happening) and then it becomes tedious (because nothing’s happening), but Wait! the camera is pushing in very slowly. Or is it? And then, at a certain point, something snaps inside the brain and you realize this film where nothing happens has transported you, and as the film continues to push inexorably in to a small photo on the wall, your conceptions of “film” and “theater” and “viewer” and finally “reality” start to shatter and the little hairs on my arm stand up just thinking about it.

    It’s as close to an entheogenic experience as I’ve ever had watching a movie. A movie where nothing happens.

  • Nittacci

    Donnie Darko was very good. Very subversive.

  • Nittacci

    I would love to have heard that talk. I’m going to read the article right now. Parsifal is my favorite opera. That four note rising grail motif that Wagner uses in the “von bade kehrt der konig heim” part of the first act just shatters me. “What is the grail”?
    Thanks, Mr May.

  • “It’s something some religious schools –even the modern Spiritualist movement– profess:” –> this is that first and only mistake again. Let’s get down to it, and call this truth stuff what it really is: this is a wake the F*ck up story, not a let’s see what someone else (they’re asleep too remember?) says story. You’re still trying to figure out truth from within illusion here. This is what the entire spiritual marketplace is based on. Some of the more hilarious kooky content that MU covers in the podcasts is testament to this.

    So let’s play this out.. Say you do guess right about the metaphysics of the universe. You sign up with the right group of believers and it turns out the answers they give are at least somewhat correct. Where are you now? You get to say you know, and move forward basing your personality and confidence on that. Yet, you have no way to verify your new truth, it’s simply belief system that falls apart because you have to use the ’cause they said so’ defense. You aren’t living the reality, you’re believing in it, and so you’re still within illusion. The trap is complete. This is what is meant by ‘all is vanity, all..’ in Ecclesiastes. You’ve just managed to create a cleverer trap for yourself. Reinforcing your belief that you got it right. It’s just your ego again running the show. So now maybe you get to be a teacher, you’ve honed your skills and have this stamp of authority because you’re sure you know. Now its your job to convince others. Quite an effective trap I’d say.

    The problem is we’re always seeking answers within delusion. I’m saying there are no answers, only the correct questions, and how to question. I mean who cares what may or may not exist in this universe. The question should be what makes me think that it is this way or that. If in the end I do find out what is real, I’ll know it, live it because I’ve personally thrown out everything that isn’t. Kill The Buddha, in other words. If we proceed from the ‘everything is illusion’ mantra there is no way to get confused with this theory or that.

    Who cares about the answers, ask the right question and then you can get
    somewhere.

    Crap, I did it again.

  • In the 1985 movie Insignificance, which shows a fictional encounter between Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, she wants to show him that she ‘understands’ the theory of Relativity, but in the end he explains to her that to say “I know X” is a trap, because you stop thinking, and from then on you’ll only devote your time in defending your belief instead of thinking on the problem.

    So yeah, I agree with you… I think 😛

  • Thanks. I too look forward for more online engagement with smart people like you. To me that’s one of the most valuable things about the Internet: that it’s not just a passive consumption of information, but (under the right conditions) it can foster productive exchange of differing viewpoints 🙂

    Saludos,

    RPJ

  • MatthewJamesGoodwin

    The best film for a metephor of the universe is the Cube. It is big and complex, numbers and mathematics will tell you something about it but not much, you dont have any purpose or function in it, it dosent have any purpose either and probably no one gets out alive.

  • Mv13

    “That this world, what we humans recognize as reality, is nothing but an illusion; an illusion put before our eyes to imprison us by powerful entities, which seek to keep us trapped and deceived for their own selfish benefit. ”

    I get the meaning of the quote. However, when you analyze it, who or what are “powerful entities” ?

  • I’m a bit late to the game, admittedly – I just followed the link from the article about Roddy Piper’s death. Anyway, I have to say that I object to calling many of these films “gnostic” films. While some of them may have been influenced by gnosticism, others may not have been. Gnostics are not the only folks who have claimed that all of reality is an illusion. Just because some of the elements of some of these films are similar to elements in gnosticism does not make the films gnostic. It reminds me of some of these sleazy right-wingers in my country, (unfortunately) The United States. They like to say that The United States “was founded on Christian principles,” or stuff like that. Yes, some of the principles are similar to Christian principles, but those same principles are, also, similar to principles in other religions. Would these right-wingers say something like: “The United States was founded on Hindu principles?”

    By the way, sorry if I’m coming across as a jerk. That was NOT my intention.