Film & Theology Part 4

Nearly there!

Film as Icon


Another approach with great potential as an avenue of exploration is one that has been proposed by writers such as Gerard Loughlin: film as icon[1]:


Unlike idolatry, which claims to make manifest the very essence of God, or the humanistic approach, which claims that God, if God exists, is utterly irrelevant, the iconic approach offers a different way of understanding. To treat something as an icon is to view particular words, images or experiences as aids in contemplation of that which cannot be reduced to words, images or experiences.[2]


Again, this dovetails with postmodern emphases within theology, where writers and thinkers are searching for ways of approaching theology and spirituality beyond propositional truth-claims. Brian McLaren –one of the figureheads of the movement – explains the emerging church’s return to mysticism.


…to so many people, mystical is still a debased word, sub-rational, maybe a little crazed. But mystical really is a wonderful word, suggesting ways we partake of…mystery beyond the grasp of reasonable prose…recognizing the profound importance of mysticism and poetry, and the corresponding limitations of rationality and prose…[3]


What is particularly interesting, and one of the reasons why an alliance between the emergent conversation and the film-theology dialogue has the potential to bear much fruit, is that film itself as an art form and cultural apparatus can help us move into a greater appreciation of experiential forms of spirituality, and thus complement the emergent project. Drawing heavily on the theories of Marshall McLuhan regarding media and technology, Shane Hipps traces our devaluation of mysticism back to the advent of the printing press:


The values of efficiency and linear sequence, which became more entrenched in the Western world with every passing decade, changed the way the gospel was conceived…Linear reasoning became the primary means of understanding and propagating faith….Printing makes us prefer cognitive modes of processing while at the same time atrophying our appreciation for mysticism, intuition and emotion.


Fearing that a resultant devaluation of the heart has led to a deadening of desire, Hipps sees in image culture potential for the reawakening of spirituality:


The age of image restores a right-brain preference for parable and story over theology and doctrine…The shift from emphasizing our intellectual beliefs to the ethics of following is a direct consequence of the influence of images.


This lends credence to a multitude of voices positing film-viewing as a spiritual discipline[4]. As well as their parable function –playing trickster to our preconceptions, breaking open our worlds and jolting our hearts into new life – films “could also inspire prayer and meditation”[5], as well as perhaps being an avenue for religious experience. The possibility of film to become the occasion of hierophany has been usefully explored by Craig Detweller, who welcomes the advent of a more visual, iconic approach to faith via image culture. Drawing on Leo Braudy’s distinction between “open films” which invite the viewer into a collaborative process of meaning-making within the film, and “closed films” whose direction is more fixed and unyielding, Detweller challenges us:


Are you an open filmgoer, embracing a leisurely pace? Or do you prefer a tightly wound film that takes you on a wild ride? Our preferences may reveal more about our theology than we care to admit…I wonder about the relationship between my movies and my faith. Why do I like to be manipulated by autocratic dictators and shudder at the thought of subtitles? Do I go to the movies hoping to be blinded or longing to see?…Do I invite people into an open space full of  possibilities? Or do I lure viewers into my predefined presentation?


While Detweller’s remarks betray an underlying risk of bias towards high culture, the approach of looking to more poetic forms of cinema for the provision of liminal or “thin spaces”[6] has a solid theoretical basis, most noticeably in Paul Schrader’s analysis of the “transcendental style”[7] of filmmakers such as Ozu and Bresson. Schrader posits a common film language for filmmakers from divergent cultures and religious traditions, citing Michael Snow’s Wavelength as an extreme example of the vital element of “stasis” that makes a film transcendent; Gerard Loughlin takes Schrader’s theories and applies them to Orthodox theology, suggesting the films of Tarkovsky as icons due to their “meditative camera movements” and “image[s] of utter tranquility”[8].


One of the reasons why contemplation and serenity in cinematography is so easily recognized as predisposing a film towards spirituality is the nature of media production and consumption in postmodernity. Several hallmarks of media within postmodernity are visual ‘schizophrenia’ (“the breakdown of the relationship between signifiers”[9]), pastiche or aesthetic bricolage, and an “onslaught”[10] of images. The experience of going to the cinema as an event and remaining for a sustained period of time in a darkened room with our attention focused is almost a ritual in itself; we are placed into an environment wherein we are particularly open to the visceral experience of cinematic apparatus, as opposed to television or radio which are less frequently given such undivided attention. When you introduce into this event an element of serenity or deliberation (whether through camerawork, mise-en-scène, narrative or other component), it creates a unique environment for contemplation that does not necessarily exist outside of the cinema theatre.


Case Study: Bill Viola


I relate to the role of the mystic in the sense of following a via negativia – of feeling the basics of my work to be in unknowing, in doubt, in being lost, in questions and not answers…[11]


If a poetic approach to film language is a reliable signpost for mysticism in a film text, Bill Viola’s work is an obvious candidate for such inquiry. Indeed, one of the chief marks of Viola’s authorship that is remarked upon is the “increasingly spiritual”[12] undercurrent in his films, and the filmmaker’s interest in Zen spirituality, including a period of time spent in Japan, as well as Christian mystics such as the Desert Fathers[13]. This spiritual evocation is primarily a result of the attention he gives to the importance of visceral awareness in his artwork. In The Passing[14], Viola emphasises the experiential aspect of video through the creative use of editing, light and sound.


As the title suggests, the entire film is situated in the realm of liminality. It explores the ‘passing’ between life and death, sleep and wakefulness, between generations, between different life stages, between states of consciousness and the passage of time. Moreover, the mise-en-scene lulls us into a similar state of consciousness as that of the film’s content. Viola uses a cocktail of diverse and seemingly unrelated images and scenes – the film’s set-pieces include close-up video recordings of the artist drifting between sleep and consciousness, figures moving underwater (which are often initially obscured), home videos of a toddler, images of dying elderly patients, headlights playing against a desert landscape, footage of burnt-out vehicles and caravans. The miscellany of images resists easy classification – particularly because often we are not sure what exactly it is we are seeing.

We are persuaded, therefore, to avoid trying to analyse the sequence of images in terms of meaning or ideology, and focus instead on what the film does to us. In this way, we are sutured into the otherworldly space between consciousness and subconsciousness that the videotape taps into. The denial of access to an understanding of the film’s subject matter creates a sense of mystery – we are brought into a territory that is beyond ourselves, beyond the scope of our cognitive understanding.


As with most of Viola’s work, stillness and tranquility is the starting point out of which the whole film operates. From the opening shot – a very slow zoom out of the sunlight to end on a panorama of the sky – the artist starts as he means to go on. We are then shown footage of Viola himself sleeping, accompanied by the sound of his breathing. At first, this has a jarring effect; however, as the film progresses, it serves to bring us into Viola’s interior world and reinforce the perceptual, non-cognitive focus of the work. The experience of the film is the focus.


The aforementioned element of ‘stasis’ is a vital component of The Passing. The majority of the film is edited in slow-motion; moreover, as with the opening shot, often the image is obscured at first, forcing us to respond to the shapes and patterns of light that we actually see rather than attempt to decipher visual signifiers. For instance, there is one shot wherein we see a person plunging into water – at first, however, all we see is patterns of almost phosphorescent bubbles moving about the screen. The motionlessness gives us ample time to immerse ourselves in the image and whatever effect it might be having on us.


Halfway through the film, one sequence in particular serves to lure us further into the film’s experiential axis. We see a point-of-view shot of a man climbing up a mountain and looking around at the stunning scenery. The aural motif of Viola’s breathing returns, this time bringing us right into his headspace – the fact that the entire film thus far has been geared towards engaging the viewer in the artist’s consciousness gives the scene extra impact. We may feel as though we are there on the mountaintop with him, encountering its beauty.


Later in the film is a particularly interesting sequence for this discussion. We have spent a lot of time watching passing cars cast shadows against trees and cacti in the desert. The cinematography then shifts slightly to a night vision effect, so that the scene appears to be in daylight although we can still see the glare of the headlights. This creates an eerie effect that plays even further with our perception of reality within the film. Finally, we are taken to a scene in which we stand in a sparse, desert terrain with the cars in the distance. The glare of the headlights is blurry, generating a dream-like quality as the camera pans very slowly to the left. The stillness of the immediate environment contrasted with the distance of the moving cars crafts a keen awareness of stasis – a sensation that hustle and bustle are very far away, and that we are alone to experience the scenery. The pan ends on a stunning shot of a mountain, and we are allowed plenty of space for the experience of awe.


The film’s visuals are complemented by a “fantastically complex”[15] approach to sound design. As well as the breathing motif, a recurring auditory theme is non-digetic underwater-sounding noise, emphasizing the sensation of immersion in the film’s world. This is particularly effective during the home-video sequences, which are played in extreme slow-motion; the sound design takes the digetic noises from the video – a relative’s voice, the lighting of a match – and amplifies them, creating an echo effect and heightening our awareness of the different elements of the scene. This means we cannot bypass the smaller details of the scene we would otherwise have paid little attention to; we are allowed to experience every ounce of a moment habitually taken for granted.


The work’s overall effect is to leave the responsive viewer in a place of openness and receptivity to transcendence, meditation or even the incoming of God. If we read the film according to its dominant codes, we may give up trying to fit the film into our definitions and simply let go, opening ourselves up to its transformative power.


The Passing was created as a single-channel videotape. However, another interesting facet of his work is that many of Viola’s films are created to be experienced in installation form, compounding the previously discussed issues raised by the effects of the concentrated experience of viewing a film in a theatre. The gallery experience deepens the sensory, engulfing potential of the work. Viewers are immersed in the world of the film through its formal elements and are invited to explore its nuances and their response to it:


The medium of installation becomes an effective tool for heightening interaction and response even more in the current image-saturated information age, where images on their own may be easier to disregard.[16]


In a gallery, the interaction with the text is deepened, and the spectator is more fully immersed in the film or video. This intensity of interaction creates a kinetic energy that serves to deepen the viewer-text relationship, and provides an ideal backdrop to spiritual experience.


While recognising the value of ‘open’ forms of cinema, however, it is important not to over-emphasize the spirituality of avant-garde film and video while ignoring the possibilities of mainstream narrative cinema. Aesthetics, or more specifically “the study of beauty in relation to God”[17], has been connected almost exclusively with ‘high’ culture and the avant-garde, to the detriment of popular culture. “Closed films”, with their meticulously designed, self-contained universes, can be just as effective as channels of the experience of the sublime. A particular strength of certain genres is their potential for excess through their “constant assault on the spectator’s senses”[18]. Paul Coughlin defines the ‘sublime’ as the moment “when sensation consumes the spectator with an overwhelming and indescribably profound intensity”[19]. This can, in the sensitive viewer, serve to create an awareness of weakness, smallness or insufficiency; a Christian approach to theology would recognise this sense of weakness as a strong point of spirituality – for example, it helps us experience need and interdependence.

[1] Loughlin, Gerard (2007) ‘Within the Image: Film as Icon’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 287-303

[2] Rollins (2006: 38)

[3] McLaren, Brian (2004) A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystican/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-Yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 165-7. Italics his.

[4] For instance: Marsh, Clive (2004: 137); McLaren (2004: 173)

[5] McNulty, Edward (2001) Praying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Louisville. Louisville, Geneva Press: xi

[6] According to Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is an environment wherein God’s presence can be felt particularly strongly. See Maddox, Sylvia (2004) ‘Where Can I Touch the Edge of Heaven?’. Explore Faith [online]. Available: Last Accessed 28th September 2010.

[7] Schraeder, Paul (1972) Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. New York, Da Capo.

[8] Loughlin (2007: 299)

[9] Jameson, Frederic (1988) ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in Gray, Ann and McGuigan, Jim (1997) Studies in Culture: An Introductory Reader. London, Arnold: 192-205.

[10] Adbusters (2009) ‘Media Carta’. Available: Last accessed 15th September 2010.

[11] Viola (1995: 250)

[12] Ross, David A. (2006) ‘Wisdom and Insecurity: A Meditation on the Work of Bill Viola’, in Viola, Bill (2006) Hatsu Yume: First Dream. Kyoto, Nissha Printing Co: 22-32

[13] Elizabeth Ten Grotenhuis, ‘Something Rich and Strange: Bill Viola’s Use of Asian Spirituality’: 160-179

[14] The Passing (1991) [DVD]. Viola, Bill (director). Netherlands: Éditions à voir.

[15] Townsend, Chris (2004b) ‘Call Me Old-Fashioned, But…: Meaning, Spirituality and Transcendence in the Work of Bill Viola’, in Townsend, Chris (ed.) (2004a) The Art of Bill Viola. London, Thames & Hudson: 20

[16] Stanton Guion, David (2008) ‘A Study of Spirituality in Contemporary Visual Art and Foundations Funding’. OhioLINK [online]. Available: Last accessed 28th September 2010: 103

[17] Lynch (2005: 185)

[18] Caughlin, Paul (2000) ‘Sublime Moments’. Senses of Cinema [online]. Available: Last accessed 20th September 2010.

[19] Caughlin (2000)



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  1. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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