Suffering flesh spectacular bodies : connecting costume and cinema through an analysis of symbolism, myth and ritual

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This thesis connects an understanding of the appearance of the hero in certain contemporary films to the field of costume theory, through an analysis of symbol, myth and ritual. The study has two underlying motivations. The first is that the narratives of many films, consciously or unconsciously, are informed by hero’s journey myths, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a work that has been influential in Hollywood film scripting. The second is to understand certain observations made by myself during my work as a costume designer over twenty years. In Chapter 1, I discuss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung’s approach to myth and symbol (mentioned by Campbell and often alluded to by film-makers), referring mainly to the appearance of Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003) and that of Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler (2008), and drawing upon images from the myths of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (Sumerian, c. 2000 BCE) and Dionysus (Greek, c. 500 BCE). Chapter 2 extends Jane Gaines’ theory of spectacular costume by arguing that the appearance of the hero in films includes certain attributes of culture typical of the ancient magician-king. Rather than simply being ‘a sign’ for the plot, the hero’s often seemingly inexplicable appearance is intended to lift viewers beyond themselves into an experience of the numinous. Continuing with the motif of the hero as magicianking, Chapter 3 discusses the significance of the mask for costume theory. The mask was a motif of the god Dionysus in ancient Greek religious rituals and was used in the Greek tragic theatre of c. 500–400 BCE, performed to honour the god. I show how the closeness of the mask to the body creates a sense of distance or strangeness that has an ambiguous and uncanny representational power; it leads the viewer out of the literal experience of the body to an experience of other selves, felt as an emotional encounter with life. Finally, Chapter 4 further investigates transformation through symbolism of death, or more appropriately ‘non-death’, which in the hero’s journey points towards rebirth. Images of the body in a state of dismemberment and stasis signal the emergence of a new symbol-set for the hero, and also the spectator, that points towards a more vibrant way of showing the effects of living.
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