‘Epic’ and the Hysteria of Modernity

Of the family movies released in 2013, those who chanced upon Blue Sky Studio’s ‘Epic’ witnessed the most non-normative of the lot.  The film, described by Time Out as ‘a Freudian lineage anxiety drama for all the family,’ treats questions of parenthood and of the symbolic value of the parent in truly complex ways.  Further, it presents a case study of the ‘hysteric’ mechanisms in place within our culture.

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The story begins with the heroine MK, played by Amanda Seyfried, mourning the death of her mother, and the more metaphorical ‘loss’ of her father, who, since his wife’s death, has become absorbed in a fantasy of finding fairies in the garden and ignores his daughter’s needs.  The tale takes its Alice-in-Wonderland-style twist when MK encounters the fairies she thinks her father has imagined. Wondering into the forest she meets another dying matriarch, the Queen of the fairies, played by Beyoncé Knowles, who on her death-bed entrusts MK (in a child-friendly way) with the task of restoring order to a world that has lost the figures who provide it with structure. Entering an imaginary world in which the need to restore a Master figure in order to ‘save the world’ is the sole task of every character, MK encounters a huge number of other missing father and mother figures (including one played by Colin Farrell), a string of orphans and a world of disorder in need of a leader.  The world of the film can be explained using part of a seemingly complex Lacanian equation:

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The above diagram describes the ‘discourse of the Master.’ It is only the two upper terms in the equation which concern us here. The first position in the equation is the driving seat, the position which starts things off.  In it sits S1, which represents the ‘master signifier’; which can be thought of as something like the King in a feudal system, a giver of meaning and order.  The second position, the S2, represents all knowledge.  S1 drives things, creating and constructing all knowledge in relation to it.  What happens in Epic, we might say, is that S1 has disappeared. The film represents a search for the missing master signifier. It’s something Lacan discusses; to describe the ‘modern master’ or the ‘discourse of the University’ he places S2 in the driving seat; we have knowledge, but not the master signifier. We have to use knowledge to work towards this overall truth and order, as modern science does. In Epic, Beyoncé tells MK: ‘You’re here for a reason. You might not see the connections yet, but just because you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.’ We don’t know what the master signifier is, but we must work towards finding it. 

But Epic isn’t as straightforward as this.  In fact it requires a third Lacanian discourse to explain what is in play. The below equation describes the ‘discourse of the Hysteric’:

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Here, the S (with a line through it) represents the subject. The subject is now in the driving seat. The subject produces the master signifier, rather than the other way around. This is why Lacan describes the hysteric as ‘the subject with many masters;’ the subject is always producing masters. It’s something MK does repeatedly in the film:

‘He can help right? He’s like the wise old man of the forest’

‘Nah, he’s more like the mad uncle’

This sort of mistake is so common in the film; every potential S1 figure, every figure who could provide centralized order, turns out to be just another character like the others, with no stable central referent point, nothing to guarantee the order of the world. At the end, although things return to how they were, little has really been ‘resolved.’ What the film demonstrates then, is a kind of hysteria that reveals something about the family film in Hollywood. The modern world has been abandoned by the master signifier that provides it with order, and it no longer believes that it’s working towards the recovery of that ‘truth’, but it still desperately believes in this signifier, continually placing new false masters in the position, and never settling, like the hysteric.

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