Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sisyphean vs. sisyphean (with lower case "s")

I stumbled this afternoon upon a really great internet site called It’s a site that offers streamed access to a huge number of international films at the rate of one per day for a small monthly fee. It also offers a sort of chatroom for film buffs. The site is clearly managed by a knowledgeable film afficionado who has earned his chops by watching critically hundreds and hundreds of films. But, I’ve got a beef.
     I came to the site, because I was looking for information about a film in which a student has perceived a usage of the Sisyphus myth, and I went to see whether others have worked on this same premise. A three-year old thread on MUBI’s beta site brought me up short — again! — starring in the mirror at my uncommon approach to mythological usage.
     The reader(s) of Mythmatters know(s) that I am particular about what stands for mythological usage. I insist on a “verifiable” acknowledgement or overt reference to a myth within a work of art. I call this a “smoking gun” reference, that thing in the narrative that reveals the artist knows he’s dealing with the myth. While I sometimes perceive myself standing upon eroding sands when I take one stand or another, I generally maintain that if the artist wants me to think about a particular myth, there will be a give-away reference. If I have to work too hard to make the connection to the myth per se, then it seems highly likely that I’m inferring the myth more than the artist has implied it. If she wants me to think on it, she’ll tell me to.
     Martinus began a string on MUBI nearly three years ago with this invitation to his interlocutors thus:
I know, it’s a Sisyphean task in itself: trying to list every movie that has something in common with the myth of Sisyphus.
- useless struggles
- absurd situations without hope
- eternal return
- no escape possible
- pointless punishments
- an endless task
- a neverending story
This myth has many aspects. The more the movie has in common with the situation of Sisyphus, the higher I will rank it on the list, which you can watch here:
You, fellow Sisyphean moviewatchers, can help to make this list endless.

I applaud Martinus’ attempt to gather a list such as this. Especially because I am working on a similar project regarding the Orpheus myth, I admire the MUBI bloggers’ response to the invitation. Yet, I object to the groundrules of this particular game. This is the territory where my academic stenosis occurs. For, I believe that the ground rules should be more limited, along such lines as: “If the film mentions Sisyphus in its title or in its narrative, it belongs to the Sisyphus tradition.” This is too big a net for catching the right kind of quarry.
     Allowing that filmmakers illustrate cinematic narratives with overt allusion to Sisyphus will draw attention to narratives that involve “useless struggles,” “endless tasks”, “neverending stories”, and so forth. A narrative, however, must not necessarily depend upon the overt expression of the Sisyphus myth per se to articulate those feelings of endless and absurd futility. Not all narratives about futility are Sisyphus narratives.    
     Martinus lists his number one Sisyphus film: Jankovics Marcell’s “Sisyphus” (1974), a stunningly poignant black-and-white animated short that is guaranteed to affect every consideration of Sisyphus in every beholder after one viewing. The film is called “Sisyphus”.
    Marcell depicts the grunting, screeching upward striving against gravity and friction of a human figure beneath a gigantic mass. It’s Sisyphus. And its creator titled it “Sisyphus”. 

    Martinus’ expansive qualifications of a sisyphaean film invite “every movie that has something in common with the myth of Sisyphus.” That’s provocative in its enormous expanse. And the net brings in dozens of recommendations which my narrow qualifications will never allow. Surely. Truth be told, I have not seen most of the films on the lists his readers submit; but, I think the net is cast so wide that the quality of the catch is suspect.
   I have seen Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) and consider it remarkable. The
Sisyphus? I doubt it.
prognosticator finds himself stuck in a universe of repetitive experience, where everyday is exactly the same until he chooses to improve himself and his neighbors. Martinus consider it to manifest “the Sisyphean hero struggling with his fate which he defies and accepts at the same time.” Having seen the film a few times — though never through the scrutiny of a Sisyphus-mythwatch — I dare say there is no overt allusion to the Sisyphus myth in the film. Although the many films offered up by Martinus and his bloggers will no doubt include some specimens which bear overt allusion to Sisyphus and his peculiar plight, I am not prepared to admit that Groundhog Day foregrounds an overt reference.  Sisyphus and Phil may struggle in similar manner, but Phil is not Sisyphus.
    I will gladly revise my view, if, in a subsequent viewing of Groundhog Day, I discover — or have pointed out to me — the detail that has eluded my notice to date. It will be, perhaps, a framed print of Sisyphus on the wall of the coffee shop where Phil learns to be friendly with Rita, or the French text Phil claims to have mastered is Camus' Mythe de Sisyphe: essai sur l'absurde, or a heretofore unnoticed revelation that "Needlenose" Ned Ryerson’s middle initial is “S” for Sisyphus. I’m happy to watch for such clues that would inform me that Ramis was aware of Sisyphus in the creation of his cinematic marvel.
    Yet, the listing of thirty-three other reputedly Sisyphean films offered by Martinus must include at least a few where Sisyphus really is implied. I doubt Vertigo will pass my threshold of acceptance. But, Sidney Lumet’s The Hill? Or The Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais? Nolan’s Memento? Ars longa, vita brevis.

This rant is not intended to cast aspersions upon Not in the slightest way. My purpose is to knock the dross off this idea of mine and see whether it glides.

— M

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