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13 October 2011 @ 11:22 pm
Secondary Sources  
As you may have guessed by now, I got a solidly good index of movies to watch and review from Paul Meehan's Cinema of the Psychic Realm. But I'm finding his analysis lacking, and sometimes he just gets his facts plain wrong.

For example, and I know this is picky, but he calls the mother in The Rockinghorse Winner "Heather," when her name is Hester, the same name she has in the story. She is called Hester throughout the movie. IMDB lists her as Hester. And as I already mentioned in another post, he appears to have missed Nina and her husband's telepathic communication in Nosferatu -- sometimes it just feels like this book was rushed out the door, without fact checking, or it feels like he didn't really watch these movies very carefully.

He also very clearly appears to be watching old movies through a modern lens (his book was published in 2008), which is problematic when he takes modern narratives about psi and places them into works which were made before those narratives became established.

One of my aims on this website is to write not just about primary sources (the original films, stories and books, as well as letters accounts and editorials written by famous people, etc.), but also to write about the secondary sources: the summaries, reviews, and books written about the primary source material. It is often these secondary sources which have great power in crafting and reinforcing the master-narratives, and keeping the counter-narratives out of view. Sometimes, secondary sources really distort the original intent of the authors (as plainly set out in their own writings), and sometimes the secondary sources reinforce the master-narratives by leaving certain information out entirely. Thus, a student or scholar trying to get a sense of what took place and why it was important is presented with a deeply distorted view of events.

I will return to this more when I blog about certain key historical figures, such as Mark Twain, Philip K. Dick and John W. Campbell, among others.

So, back to Meehan, and the distortion of the narratives. For example, there is this paragraph on page 36 where he writes:

"The gritty realism of noir provided a context for the skeptical view of the paranormal. American "I'm-from-Missouri" hard-headedness had no room for spiritualists, mentalists or mediums. The psychic racket was portrayed as preying upon human gullibility and religiosity, with most of the victims of Jules Amthor, The Amazing Mr. X, and Stanton Carlisle being of the supposedly more irrational female gender. [I think the number of men and women swindled by Stanton Carlisle is equal, although there is a definite but subtle gender bias in the presentation of things. This bias is probably better demonstrated in other movies/stories/shows etc.] There are also associations between ESP and religious transgression, especially in Nightmare Alley, where a psychic swindler invokes God in order to further his criminal schemes..." (Emphasis mine)

As I pointed out in my analysis of that movie, there isn't an association between ESP and religious transgression (none of the other fake psychics get "struck down," and Zeena's reading of the Tarot cards is presented as true prophesy). His religious transgression is explicitly religious -- he crosses the line when he becomes a "false prophet," which he does via a fake mentalist act. He also manages to cross this line even though he never invokes God, which he points out in his defense and even Molly has to reluctantly admit.

I am also not certain where the line is in making such conduct criminal as opposed to merely unethical, or conduct which opens one up to a civil cause of action. I will have to do some research into that.

So why, then, would Meehan review this movie with a comment on an association between ESP and religious transgression? Because that is a very strong master-narrative in other works, mostly later. We see that association in The Rockinghorse Winner. We see that narrative in many, many later works which I will cover. But I do not think that association is actually present in Nightmare Alley, unless the viewer is bringing it into the movie with him or her. Nightmare Alley starts from the assumption that psi is not real, and so the religious transgression has to be elsewhere.
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