Monday, April 20, 2009

The Mythic, Mithraic Mysticism of Michael Clayton

Abstract: Tony Gilroy's 2007 masterpiece
Michael Clayton is an ancient myth masquerading as a legal thriller. Consciously drawing upon the symbolism of fantasy literature and pre-Christian religion, Gilroy revives a narrative tradition of ethics and morality wed to Synchronicity and visionary experience.

While preparing this article, I realized that in my somewhat-amorphous Top 20 list of favorite movies from the past 15 years, 4 of them star George Clooney.

Of those 4, only one (Out of Sight) was a true mainstream hit. The other three films are Soderbergh and Cameron's Solaris, Syriana and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton.* I've written about the deep mythological parallels in Solaris, which you'd expect in a mystical sci-fi film (particularly one involving James Cameron).

But there is as much - if not more - mythic symbolism in
Michael Clayton, which you wouldn't expect in a legal thriller of this type. Unless said thriller was written and directed by one of the primary screenwriters in yet another of my top 20 films, The Devil's Advocate.

Gilroy has said that Clayton grew out of his work on Advocate, which saw a scenery-chewing Al Pacino as Satan using a Manhattan law firm as a staging ground for the Apocalypse. The conceit of that film was that the Devil was not a puppeteer, but merely an enabler for humankind's own (limitless) capacity for evil. The Devil's Advocate was pure fantasy; Michael Clayton is much more frightening because the evil it depicts is that much more real.


NOTE: We're in for spoilers galore, so if you haven't seen the film and want to be surprised, stop reading now, go rent it and then come back. I'll be still be here when you get back.

First a word about the actors- in a Secret Sun context, it's hard to imagine a more significant lead cast: You have the aforementioned Clooney in the title role. You have Tom Wilkinson (of Eternal Sunshine fame) as the doomed attorney Arthur Edens (more on that name later). You have the late, great Sydney Pollack playing a close variation of his Eyes Wide Shut role as Clayton/Clooney's boss.

And finally you have Tilda Swinton (aka the "One-Woman Synchromystic Factory") as the villian of the piece, corporate attorney Karen Crowder (I'm sorry, I realize using "corporate attorney" and "villain" in same sentence is redundant). Both Clooney and Wilkinson were nominated for Ausurs® for their amazing work in the film and Swinton won Best Supporting Actress.

The plot is that Arthur Edens- a top litigator with a history of mental illness- goes off the deep end when he realizes that U-North, the agro-chemical company his firm is representing, deliberately suppressed evidence during a lawsuit over a carcinogenic weed killer. When Arthur threatens to expose a damning memo, U-North's lead attorney has him murdered by a pair of corporate spies. Clayton is the firm's fixer who discovers what Edens was on to and soon becomes a target himself.

So many of the signifiers we've seen repeated over and over in other films are well-represented in this film. First of all, the story is told in flashback, which is to say reverse time. At the beginning of the film we meet Michael Clayton at a gambling den in Koreatown. His car is parked on 33rd St, staring straight up at the Empire State Building.

From there, Clayton drives to Westchester, to deal with a client involved in a hit-and-run. Driving home as the Sun rises, Clayton stops when he sees three horses on a hilltop. Later we find out the significance of this sighting.

Exhausted and distraught, Clayton climbs the hill to connect with the animals. But as he does so, his car explodes. Hmmm- flaming chariot, horses, sunrise...sound familiar?

Here's a hint.

Clayton then throws his wallet and watch and phone into the flaming car. The watch is especially fascinating, given that the Roman sun god, Helios Mithras (aka Sol Invictus, or the "Unconquerable Sun") was known as "the god of Infinite Time."

Doubly fascinating, since following the explosion (and its attendant sun god symbolism), we go back in time, and the first thing we see is this image: the flaming solar disk logo of the film's fantasy franchise, Realm + Conquest, which is sort of a combination of Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia and World of Warcraft.

Realm + Conquest is the obsession of Clayton's son Henry, and becomes the linchpin of the entire film. What Gilroy is doing here is telling us that we are now in a mythic realm, so we need to look out for signifiers.

Like this: Clayton is summoned to Milwaukee to deal with a crisis- Arthur freaked out during a deposition with a plaintiff (named "Anna Kysersun"- I kid you not) and stripped naked and ran through the parking lot. Now we are introduced to Karen Crowder in narrative time as she leaves a corporate minivan during a Wisconsin snowstorm. Ring any bells?

Here, does this image help?

We hear Arthur's confession to Clayton during the film's opening credits. What he describes sounds less like a psychotic break, and more like a Philip K. Dick-type visionary experience. After a lifetime of conscience-less litigation, Arthur realizes he himself has become an accomplice to mass murder:
I realize we're standing in the middle of the street, the light's changed, there's this wall of traffic, serious traffic speeding towards us, and I freeze, I can't move, and I'm suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I'm covered with some sort of film. It's in my hair, my face... it's like a glaze... like a coating, and... at first I thought, oh my god, I know what this is, this is some sort of amniotic - embryonic - fluid. I'm drenched in afterbirth, I've-I've breached the chrysalis, I've been reborn.

But then the traffic, the stampede, the cars, the trucks, the horns, the screaming and I'm thinking no-no-no-no, reset, this is not rebirth, this is some kind of giddy illusion of renewal that happens in the final moment before death. And then I realize no-no-no, this is completely wrong because I look back at the building and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I realized Michael, that I had emerged not from the doors of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the... the-the-the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity.
Clayton then meets Karen Crowder and it's hate at first site (this film is kind of a classic Clooney romance picture in reverse). She's one of those denatured, defeminized, dehumanized drones those of you who've worked at certain corporations will be well familiar with. Clayton has Arthur released and is charged with cleaning up his mess. Crowder's minions do background on Clayton, where we hear this voiceover:

You were probably wondering when our magic number was going to show up. Note also the staff of wheat in the flag behind Clayton, which bears a strange resemblance to the golden laurels of Apollo.

After his release from prison, Arthur speaks with Henry, who has called to speak with his absent father. Henry has become a Realm + Conquest evangelist, and Arthur is immediately captivated by the story's premise of heroes being summoned to a great mission by shared, visionary dreams.

Gilroy is giving us the true power of mythology, by placing a myth within his own emotion-laden myth.

Arthur uses the book as direct inspiration for his own quest- to avenge the deaths of the Midwestern farmers killed by U-North's weed killer. He later titles his case against U-North "Summons to Conquest."

Arthur then escapes Clayton's supervision and returns to his New York loft, where U-North's spies are tapping his phone. Clayton then confronts Arthur, who is clutching a large bag of French bread to his chest. We must then wonder- is Arthur actually Ausur? After all, some scholars have traced the Arthurian legends to Egyptian sources.

And I can't help but wonder when I picture this image of Osiris, with wheat growing from his sarcophagus.

The performances in this film are absolutely riveting. As a loose cannon, Wilkinson alternates from child-like mental case to aggressive, razor-sharp litigator without warning throughout the film. Suspicious that the firm wants him committed, Arthur utters this cryptic line, which ties us back to Clayton's sunrise epiphany. His confrontation ends with a withering glare which you could just imagine reducing witnesses to rubble in a courtroom.

From there we see Arthur back in vacant mode, wandering around Times Square (of course) freed of a lifetime of deceit. Note that he is crowned with the oceans of the earth in this shot, again tying back to the Osiris archetype.

But his mood instantly changes when he sees U-North's greenwash bullshit appear on an electronic billboard. Note the juxtaposition of the U-North logo and the Wicked poster- the Wicked Witch of the West identified with Jadis the White Witch in the form of Karen, Tilda Swinton's character.


In the mix-and-match language of fantasy literature, Karen could also be Morgan le Fay, perhaps with Arthur and Clayton as the Pendragons.

Note also the explictly Solar Europa Cafe logo- this links us directly to bull symbolism, which we'll see in a moment...

Karen orders Arthur to be killed when he announces his intention to expose their complicity. I couldn't help but see Arthur/Ausur as the Apis bull, the sacrificial god of Taurus seen in the Mithraic Tauroctony. Those surgical caps the killers (named Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker) are wearing remind me of this...

... Mithras' Phrygian cap, which we see in the Tauroctony. The fact that Arthur is poisoned parallels the scorpion and snake in the icon.

Oh, I know- that's stretching it a bit...

...or is it? As we are told, "the man was a bull." This Tauroctony parallel certainly puts the flaming chariot in a whole new context...

...which is foreshadowed when Clayton looks at Arthur's copy of Realm+Conquest (note mark-ups). Gilroy is not only showing us the power of myth, he's showing us classic synchronicity. The symbolism of this myth drove Arthur's own quest and then saved Clayton's life- and signifies his symbolic apotheosis.

Clayton "dies" and is resurrected- Using his police connections (through his brother) Clayton has the story get out that he was killed when Verne and Iker bomb his car. Clutching a rolled-up copy of Arthur's "Summons to Conquest," Clayton confronts Jadis/Morgan after U-North has agreed to a cash settlement with the victims' families.

This confrontation is one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. And there we see that magic name- Anna Kysersun ("Inanna Caesar-Sun") - interesting in that Inanna was the direct equivalent of Hathor, consort of sun god Horus. Is Gilroy pointing to this love goddess/sun god relationship when Anna and Clayton meet in a hot-sheet motel-at an airport, no less? (Inanna was identifed with the sky, as was Hathor)

Michael then explicitly takes on the mantle of Arthur's godhood as the NYPD swoop in and arrest Karen and her boss Don Jeffries (brilliantly played by Ken Howard of White Shadow fame).

Clayton then descends an escalator, like Osiris descending to the Underworld to judge the dead, and walks out to the street...

...and hails down a cab (or in Kotzean parlance, a "Checker Chariot"). Note that 7x25=175.


In my opinion what Gilroy has done here is create a modern myth to encapsulate the elemental forces that converge within the daily corruptions of modern corporate practice.

Following the financial meltdown, this mythology seems less subversive (some idiot reviewers accused Gilroy of "anti-captialism") than prescient. It's one of the oldest stories in the book- Arthur is a king who is unjustly killed and Clayton is his son who avenges his death. "Arthur" and "Edens" both point to lost idylls- the Camelot and Round Table of the Arthurian romances and the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Clayton is an elemental man (who, like the Adamah, is "made" of clay) who dies and is reborn as an avenging sun god, which is signified by the horses and flaming chariot at sunrise - and Arthur's explictly solar totem "Summons to Conquest." Just like in Narnia, the Sun God melts the Ice Queen. This is mythology in its purest form, made relevant for a modern audience. If Michael Clayton was powerful in 2007, today it's foundational.


This attitude towards corruption ties back to Mithraism, which imposed a stringent morality upon its followers. Contrary to academic misinformation, this variety of sun worship didn't die because it was elitist- the Emperor Aurelian had established an exoteric solar religion apart from the Mystery cults during his reign. It died because it insisted on a severe morality in business as well as personal matters. And with bone-crushers like Aurelian (nicknamed manu ad ferrum, meaning "Hand on Sword) in its ranks, it had the ability to enforce that morality.

Aurelian was assassinated for opposing corruption, which became a way of life as Rome became increasingly beholden to foreign merchants (we see this paralleled with the NYC-based law firm and the provincial U-North). Likewise, Diocletian opposed profiteering and deceitful business practices.

The last sun-worshipping emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate, followed Aurelian and Diocletian's rigorous example and publicly chastised his cousins in the Constantine family for their mind-numbing hypocrisy and criminality. He too may have been assassinated for fighting corruption, which slowly strangled the Empire when the Christian emperors regained power.†

Is Gilroy consciously referring back to Mithraism and its stern ethics? Probably not, but he is obviously using mythic elements drawn from that same tradition. Again, perhaps we are looking at a kind of cultural DNA, where you can't separate the mythos from the message. Meaning that through cultural osmosis, we absorb the myths and their meanings, which are reconstructed through the power of the Collective Unconscious.

Clearly and unambiguously we see myth as a motivator, both for Arthur and Clayton. We see Clayton "die" and be reborn at sunrise (which we looked at in the context of a different Clayton recently). We see Tilda Swinton do a real world do-over of her Narnia role. We have symbolism galore, both overt and otherwise, if not always a clear handle on its meaning.


For reasons I can't explain, I believe that Myth needs to exist in the non-physical realm for it to truly realize its power. Meaning that it loses its power when it is literalized. I think that the Gnostics understood this, I think the philosophers understood this.

Another problem is when people diminish the power of Myth by trying to actualize it. Michael Clayton is powerful exactly because I don't know all of the mundanities of the character's lives or their temporal connections (which too much fannish sci-fi tries to reintroduce, as in the various Stargates or The Dead Zone series). These characters exist outside of temporal restriction, which we see symbolically referenced when Clayton destroys his watch in his flaming chariot.

I think a new understanding of Myth is an integral component in our conscious evolution, and I very much suspect that storytellers like Tony Gilroy agree.

*Clooney also starred in a couple movies in my top 50-
Three Kings (about the betrayal of the Kurdish resistance after the Gulf War) and The Perfect Storm (which was set in my old summer stomping grounds, Gloucester aka Innsmouth and co-starred my former neighbor Mark Wahlberg and my teenage lust object, Diane Lane).

† Despite what some apologists would like you to believe, the "Eastern Empire" was a glorified city-state with a geographic buffer that shrank relentlessly before finally surrendering to Islam.