Northern Exposure, episode 5.7 (Rosebud): Graham Greene and Darren E. Burrows screen Citizen Kane

I was catching up my backlog of Internet reading and writing on this morning of the Academy Awards when a message from a Twitter followee caught my attention:

I just don’t understand all the Oscars coverage. It’s quite pathetic.

For some reason, I was instantly reminded of my favorite episode from one the greatest television series of all time: “Rosebud” — episode 5.7 of Northern Exposure. I love that one so much that I just went down to the basement and retrieved the VHS tape from the plastic storage box where I have all the Northern Exposure episodes and watched it again.

Some intensive searching reveals the full episode can also be viewed online:

I cry like a baby every time I see it. This emotion, as Roger Ebert has found out, is known as Elevation.

Like any one-hour TV episode, “Rosebud” intertwines several story lines. Key to this one, however, is the power of storytelling itself. Town capitalist Maurice Minnifield wants to secure funding for a full-blown luxury hotel by leveraging the tourism that a Cicely, Alaska Film Festival could bring. He puts local aspiring filmmaker Ed Chigliak in charge of creating the event, and Ed brings Peter Bogdanovich to town as a keynote speaker on a proposed festival theme of “Orson Welles.” (Bogdanovich is an Orson Welles expert; he literally wrote the book on Orson Welles.)

Meanwhile, Native American shaman Leonard Quinhagak (Graham Greene), seeing his practice becoming more diverse, wants to learn more about the mythology and the medicine of white culture. As he explains to Holling Vincoeur, he is in search of the white man’s “healing stories”:

Traditionally, healers such as myself found that storytelling has great curative powers. People are fortified by parables — legends, you might call them. In our culture, the theme is frequently some act of faith, or perseverance. I’m looking for parallel stories in the white culture — expressions of the collective unconscious.

But Leonard grows increasingly frustrated as he attempts to conduct field interviews. Vincoeur offers him folk tales like Paul Bunyan, and the best any other Cicely residents can come up with is an endless stream of urban legends like The Spiders in the Hairdo, Kidney Theft, and The Hook on the Handle.

Leonard finally declares his research a failure. “I simply can’t find any healing properties in the fables,” he despairs. “White people don’t seem concerned at all with using mythology to heal themselves. In fact, they seem intent on making each other feel worse.”

Radio morning man Chris Stevens rattles off an elaborate theory involving the dominance of Christianity followed by the rise of industrialization and modern man’s dissociation via capitalism and mass production resulting in collective fear and paranoia, but Leonard doesn’t see how any of that explains the Spanish Fly/Stick Shift story.

Throughout this episode, Ed Chigliak (in a brilliant performance by Darren E. Burrows) has been working his way through an impasse in his own career quest. His personal crisis eventually reaches the point where he’s suffering stomach spasms and lying awake at night. He admits to Leonard that he’s a fraud:

Orson Welles made this film called F for Fake, and Leonard, that’s me. I say I’m a shaman, but I don’t do it. And I say I’m a filmmaker, but I don’t do that. So I guess what I’m saying, Leonard, is — What am I doing?

Near the end of the hour, though, Leonard finds Ed alone in the dark, screening Citizen Kane — the “Declaration of Principles” scene.

Citizen Kane never ceases to amaze Ed, who thinks that Kane’s “It-might-be-fun-to-run-a-newspaper” approach mirrors that of Orson Welles himself, only 25 years old when he set out to make a movie: “He didn’t know what he was doing, and yet he did something that was perfect. Makes you think about what’s possible.”

Leonard notes that Ed is watching this same story yet again, even though he’s seen it many times before, and he’s no longer feeling sick like he was. In this one moment, and in this one scene from Citizen Kane, Ed has arrived at the threshold of his life’s work, and Leonard has finally found white medicine.

“Movies. They say it’s magic.”

Something like this also happens in Hannah and Her Sisters, where Woody Allen is healed by the trickster gods known as the Marx Brothers.

Movies are a primary channel for creating and sharing our collective mythology, our healing stories. Mythologist Joseph Campbell regularly referenced Star Wars as an example of ancient mythological motifs being translated into new settings and communicated to the general public very effectively.

Campbell also stressed the importance of the arts in providing a society with a creative and cushioning means of communicating and assimilating even subconscious notions. In The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, he specifies what exactly it was that lifted the civilization of Ancient Egypt to such greatness:

My own first guess, already named, is that it was by the influence of art. For since mythology is born of fantasy, any life or civilization brought to form as a result of a literal mythic identification or inflation, as a concrete imitatio dei, will necessarily bear the features of a nightmare, a dream-game too seriously played — in other words, madness; whereas, when the same mythological imagery is properly read as fantasy and allowed to play into life as art, not as nature — with irony and grace, not fierce daemonic compulsion — the psychological energies that were formerly in the capture of the compelling images take the images in capture, and can be deployed with optional spontaneity for life’s enrichment. Moreover, since life itslef is indeed such stuff as dreams are made on, such a transfer of accent may conduce, in time, to a life lived in noble consciousness of its own nature.

So this is why tonight is important. Not only Hollywood, but the entire world sets aside an evening to applaud the achievements of artists who are keeping our collective healing stories alive and fresh — and not just white people’s stories or American stories anymore, either. Just as Orson Welles broke ground by showing a ceiling in a movie, tonight the people who made Slumdog Millionaire will be honored for pushing the art of storytelling that much farther in their own time.

Yes, tonight is also cheap, trashy showbiz. It is gambling on who will win and it is gossip about how people look and it is greed over how an Oscar will affect future box office revenue. There will even be some geniuses who conclude that the program runs too long or sometimes drags.

Ignore all that.

Instead, just take an evening to appreciate the magical, healing power of good storytelling and the accomplishments of some of our best filmmakers in bringing this medicine to us all.

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