The phone rings in the middle of the night / My father yells “what you gonna do with your life?”

My first year teaching is nearly up – just a seminar and some marking after Easter – and it’s been quite the ride. I guess most of what this year’s been about has been not only getting my head around how to teach, but also reprioritising my life and career and watching my quarter-life crisis loom larger and larger on the horizon. On the face of it, I’ve done quite well for myself; part-time lecturer by the age of 24 (a job title with almost sufficient ponce to forever ward off parental enquiries – actual or projected – about “real jobs”), and when I’m not lecturing I’m working in a haberdashery which I could happily do for the rest of my life.

So, the question is, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? That’s what I’ve been wrestling with. I’ve swung quite wildly between “DO A PHD!” – “DON’T DO A PHD!” -“DEFINITELY DO IT! NOW!” – “DO IT AT CHRIST CHURCH!” – “DO IT SOMEWHERE ELSE!” and other similar clamourings. Here’s the long and short of it:
– Original plan: take the summer to write a proposal then go in for it next academic year (2013)
– Change of plan #1: met up to discuss my idea with Andy Birtwistle who would be my supervisor and is brilliant. Andy was ridiculously encouraging and upon discovering the proposal’s only 1500 words I think “The hell with it, I’ll do it this year!”
– Another colleague suggests I think long and hard about doing it at another institution to avoid the awkward career masochism of having all of your qualifications from the same university. Apparently my academic record is impeccable and I don’t need to rely on being known. Upon receiving similar advice from other trusted people I decide he’s right and set my heart on doing the AVPhD at Goldsmiths. I email the AHRC advisor to ask about funding.
– Reply: “Thank you for your enquiry; while AHRC funding is available across a broad range of courses, the AVPhD is not one of them. We are sorry to send a disappointing reply.”
– Current status: hmmm. I was very excited about that prospect. I’m not sure a full-theory PhD is up my street, mainly because it locks me into teaching. The job security of that type of employment is attractive, but the thought of spending the rest of my life in theory-mode as opposed to actually making stuff doesn’t quite cut the mustard, even though I am better at the theory thus far.

The other day my boss at The Sewing Shop asked me what my goal is. I found it quite hard to pin down; I told her I want to make films – music videos and documentaries, and then I kind of went off on one about how while I know what I want to do and I believe in working hard, I don’t want what I do  to be where I get my identity from/how I don’t believe in striving to make my dreams come true because God’ll sort it all out for me anyway…she stared at me blankly. I always struggle with getting this across, partly because I haven’t got it all figured out myself. I want to be quite upfront about the fact that God’s involved; there’s no way I want people thinking the way I go about my career plans is the same as everyone else because nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, somehow, I struggle to express it properly. You see, it’s not just my father asking what I’m gonna do with my life, it’s my friends, it’s my colleagues…everyone. Me too, but my life is not my own. The God bit’s fairly substantial.

About a year ago, I was visiting my friends from school, who are now living the dream in London. I made a similar blunder in trying to explain the “God+career” thing – it was nearly a year since I had finished my MA and I was working a crappy minimum-wage job with the prospect of lecturing a mere blip on the horizon. I wasn’t freaking out about it at all, even though I wasn’t being creatively fulfilled, because I knew my focus was meant to be on other things (like church, personal growth), and I knew God wanted me in Canterbury for the time being. Trying to explain that to people who’ve never experienced that way of thinking is a challenge, and trying to make it sound appealing…in the end, what I said got misinterpreted as “the church is holding me back from pursuing my dreams”, and I was perceived as unwise. When did pursuing your dreams become the sensible, safe option? I suppose the answer is that I’ve been mainly throwing myself into something more like “pursuing-the-dreams-that-are-bigger-than-your-dreams-but-also-encompass-your-dreams-but-sometimes-they-don’t-for-a-while”, which isn’t really a paradigm that most people have.

I’ve been reading Miranda July’s ‘It Chooses You’ (review coming very soon – July is a personal heroine of mine) and coveting her effortless way of expressing her personal growth and lightbulb moments. Truth is, I don’t have any at the moment. At the moment I am sitting on my new sofa next to my flatmate listening to Local Natives and trying to decide whether to end this blog post with a mini-manifesto of my approach to career-God-dialectics, or to actually think the subject through a bit more and write a proper post on the subject rather than rush to cobble something together. Slow-thinker that I am, I have decided to plump for the latter option; however, in the interests of catching-up, here’s my year of lecturing in tweets:

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Lighten up!

So, I realise that the entire last page is crammed with nothing but academic writing, which doesn’t make my blog look particularly inviting, so I thought I’d break it up a little by posting one of my favourite vids from “Tales of Mere Existence”. This was pretty much my life while I was still writing the damned dissertation…

 

Film & Theology Part 6

Some Conclusions

 

Throughout this piece, I have argued that the film-theology dialogue needs to mature to become truly an exchange of ideas between film and theology, rather than simply an exchange of ideas about film within theology. I wish to reinforce this with a bolder assertion: if the discussion remains predominantly within its theology-heavy bubble it will lose momentum and stagnate. Providentially, the post-secular potential of mainstream academia (including film studies) is being met with a more progressive theology to engage with in Emergence Christianity, creating a fertile environment in which this discussion can establish itself and explore new terrain. One obvious upshot of this enquiry is that film critics and film studies scholars will be challenged to better inform themselves of the nuances of religion and theology:

 

…if [the dynamics of film] do not require religious or theological interpretation, they do more than merely permit such interpretation. The de facto function of film in contemporary Western culture at least suggests to interpreters operating within a cultural studies perspective that religion should not be overlooked when the reception of films is studied.[1]

 

Not only could the emergent ethos positively impact the type of theology that film studies is met with, it also has potential to impact the way in which films are engaged with theologically – to help us more fully comprehend the subtleties of the dialogue, rather than relying on superficial interpretations. It is my contention that newly rediscovered theological paradigms such as parable and icon will prove much more profitable to the exchange of ideas than simply illustration, as these paradigms refer to theology in practice rather than in theory.

 

Given that many commentators are pointing to religion as a budding focus of academic attention in the near future, the potential of theology as an emerging focus within film theory means the film-theology dialogue could be of great interest to anyone interested in future developments within film theory. Whatever direction the discourse takes, cinema can provoke exploration, inspire prayer and meditation, jolt the soul, trigger personal transformation and invite us into different ways of being. An exploration of film’s theological dimension has copious potential to lead to a fuller understanding of cinema’s riches.


[1]Marsh (2004: 143)

 

Film & Theology Part 5

This is the penultimate installment in my posting of my MA dissertation on Film & Theology.

 

Further Possibilities: Paradigmatic Synthesis

For some films, a dialectic of both parable and icon paradigms will be the most useful axis on which to stage a discussion. As a final example, one such film is AJ Schnack’s About a Son[1], a visually arresting portrait of the late musician Kurt Cobain. This film is of particular interest to my research given my ongoing interest in broadening the definitions and uses of documentary. The film is based on tape recordings of interviews between Cobain and journalist Michael Azzerad. Until the very end, we do not see a single image of the artist; instead, the recordings are complemented by wistful cinematography of the spaces inhabited by Cobain during his life.

 

The film has both a parable aspect and an iconic one, and both are made more powerful by the existence of the other. The parable aspect, while not as overt as that of Lady Vengeance, is present through our alignment with the film’s subject. We listen to him discussing highly personal themes such as ambition, his parents’ divorce, memory, bullying, art and family; through this alignment we are given space to interact with his perspective. It is this narrative aspect that carries parable potential, as we imagine how our story relates to Cobain’s.

 

The film’s iconic dimension is supplied by the ambient camera work. We are given a portrayal of Cobain’s autobiographical milieux, but rather than a straightforward representation of his history, the camera lingers hauntingly over frequently unrelated landscapes – in places, it bears resemblance to Bill Viola’s use of light in his video Hatsu Yume (for example, halfway through there is a scene of light playing off water through the windows of a boat – similar in cinematography and pacing to the opening sequence of Viola’s work). This tangential approach serves to lead us into the emotional core of the film, bypassing clear-cut illustration in favour of visual poetry. The editing is well-paced, with a mixture of fast-moving sequences and slow, tranquil ones to complement the film’s emotional cues. Moreover, the parable element is complemented by shots wherein locals are asked to hold the camera’s gaze, creating revealing living portraits within the film itself – a mesmerizing effect similar to that of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests[2].

 

When the lyrical, aesthetic dimension of the film (icon) combines with the human, narrative aspect (parable), the two elements play off each other to create a multi-faceted film with plenty of room for multiple viewing positions, including much space for spiritual exploration or revelation. As most viewers will know from the outset the tragedy of Cobain’s suicide, the film carries a poignancy that carries the promise of opening us up to contemplation of questions of life’s meaning and our place in the universe; for some viewers, this can certainly lead to even deeper possibilities of theological activity.

 

Where next? Some suggestions

 

Throughout this essay, I have attempted to show some of the riches that a theological approach to film can confer on the academic study of film. Clearly, I have done so from a Christian perspective, so the contention has been to demonstrate the particular resources of my tradition when it comes to engaging with spirituality and culture; voices from other religious traditions have thus far been thin on the ground, but have surely much to offer the enquiry into spirituality within cinema (for instance, given Bill Viola’s interest in Zen, a Buddhist reading of his films would be of great interest). Regardless of the faith basis, there are several things that will need to be taken into consideration as film scholarship attempts to engage with post-secularism and theology.

 

It is clear that while a large number of spectators might share the experience of the sublime within a filmic text (as Hay’s research suggests), far fewer will be open to the fullness of that moment’s true transcendent potential. One detail that should be clear to any serious film theorist, and which many involved in the film-theology dialogue have missed in the past, is the fact that a given film text will not have the same effect on all of its viewers, as was highlighted by spectatorship theorists such as Roland Barthes.  Again, the point that contemporary theological mores have negatively influenced the discourse holds. In the same way that modern literalists are preoccupied with finding the verbatim meaning of a biblical text while ignoring both authorial context and the subjectivity of the reader[3], many preliminary endeavors and film and theology analysis “have either erred on the side of didacticism, reducing the movie under consideration to mere illustration, or have remained too cautious, taking readers to the door of theological conversation, but failing to walk through that door for fear of becoming dogmatic”[4]. However, as mentioned elsewhere, current theological discourse indicates that these patterns of thought are losing authority and being replaced by more nuanced accounts of orthodoxy, which will doubtless have a positive effect on the film-theology conversation. The fact of the multiplicity of readings of, and reactions to, a film text should come as no surprise to theologians, as Jesus’ frequent caveat that his teachings would only be understood by those with “ears to hear”[5] seem to pre-empt the insights of spectatorship theory. Thus, where a film may contain the possibility of becoming the occasion of spiritual encounter, we should not expect that it would act the same way for all, or even most, of its audience. Film-theology criticism, therefore, should focus on the minority of viewers who are sensitive to a film’s spiritual element, rather than ignoring the multiplicity of reader positions by making interpretive generalisations.

 

Another thing that should be acknowledged upfront is the extent to which the nebulous character of spirituality leads unavoidably to a certain discursive ambiguity. There is an extent to which academic discourse tries “to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite”[6]; in trying to confront a subject as mysterious as spirituality, academia must recognize its own limitations. Moreover, on a practical level, alternative forms of worship and theological practise (including film as spiritual discipline) are only just beginning to be explored[7] and thus understanding of their effectiveness is in its infancy:

 

It is perhaps as we learn to think about cinemagoing as itself a spiritual practice that we will really discover how to nurture personal, transformative theological encounters with film.[8]

 

Gordon Lynch makes an important point: that perhaps some of the uncertainties surrounding the concept of spirituality within cinema – confusion about what exactly constitutes a spiritual experience, for example – will gain greater clarity as cinemagoers who are also spiritual sojourners begin to explore the possibilities of film’s theological dimension. As such, audience research and investigation into subjective experiences and intuitive observations in the spectator would prove highly profitable to the discussion:

 

An appropriate concrete next step for the theology/religion-film debate must therefore surely be to gather empirical data…about the emotional, cognitive, aesthetic and ethical impact of film…[9]

 

This is particularly important given that a large part of whether or not a film is able to act theologically depends heavily on the viewer-text relationship. Thinking about film as the possible juncture of hierophany would gain much clarity from its discussion alongside real-life examples.

 

If the film-theology dialogue is to develop in a fruitful way, it will certainly have to make its way into film theory-based settings rather than remain rooted within the discipline of theology. I hope to have demonstrated some ways in which this shift may be encouraged by new developments within theology through the corrective of postmodern, Emergence Christianity. However, if secular fields such as film studies are to adapt to accommodate post-secularism and a growing interest in theology, they will have to address certain unexamined assumptions. One of several ingredients that have led to the abandonment of modernity is a “refusal to regard positivistic and rationalistic criteria as the exclusive standard of knowledge”[10]; however, our academic forms of communication have been profoundly impacted by positivism. The Enlightenment-rooted privileging of certain forms of knowledge over others has been helpfully elucidated by John Peacocke:

 

When philosophy donned its garb of respectability – the argument, this gave rise to the spectacle of the contest…The “lovers of wisdom” were those who joyfully did battle with irrationalism and ignorance to proclaim the “truth” of reason. “Thinking” which did not cover the nakedness of its insight with the proffered cloak of respectability was consigned to the depths of irrationalism and exiled from the respectable precincts of philosophy. The “thinking” which was exiled from philosophy was to be encountered only in poetry, literature, art and, we might venture, mysticism and the religious. The whispered insights gained in such diverse fields, were never to be deemed worthy of the name “philosophy”; and never were the figures from these realms to be hallowed with the name “philosopher”.[11]

 

Problems with the accepted boundaries of academic discourse have already been identified by discourse ethicists as well as feminist and Marxist theorists.[12] It will be interesting to note how scholars with an interest in contributing to this dialogue deal with issues such as the problems of value-free language, how to define theology (ie. beyond existentialism or ethics) and negotiating plurality, and whether or not these insights actually affect how we approach academic discourse.

 

If post-secularism does indeed take root, these questions will be dealt with elsewhere in the academy by scholars with an interest in the subject; their insights and deductions will then simply bleed into film theory’s engagement with the subject. These questions are currently in the early stages of being wrestled with by a multitude of other contributors (philosophers, sociologists, cultural theorists, theologians, scientists and more). Thus, film theorists can acknowledge work done in other fields to influence their starting position rather than spend too much time on boundary-marking within their own work.

 

Finally, the advent of theology within film studies may also help film studies as a whole flourish, insofar as there are many auteurs whose films are superficially referred to as ‘spiritual’, but analysis of their work on these terms has been limited to simply stating that there are spiritual undertones. Theology can help provide film studies with a potential framework for uncovering more of the riches of certain filmmakers’ bodies of work, both past and present. In fact, I wish to stake a bold claim for the idea that the continued dearth of understanding of spirituality within film is impoverishing film theory. Spirituality – and perhaps even the divine – is an aspect of our human experience, and thus a dimension of both how we create and consume films; to ignore this is to limit our understanding both of the ways in which cinema can work and of the full range of human experience. Theology can help shed light on aspects of our film spectatorship that have previously been ignored or underplayed.

 

From Theory to Practice: Spiritual Space-Making Within Ding Dong the Church is Dead

As a film practitioner, particularly one who desires her work to point to deeper questions of human existence, I have been particularly interested in the practical implications of the exchange of ideas between theology and film. I would be interested in the infusion of my work with spirituality regardless of the subject matter; however, given the nature of my MA film project (a documentary titled Ding Dong the Church is Dead on the subject of the emerging church movement), I was particularly keen to explore how to create and sustain space for spirituality alongside my other creative ambitions.

 

My theoretical and practical interests share a certain continuity from the work I did during the final year of my undergraduate degree. That year, I made a short experimental film titled Wanted: A Lover, where I drew on Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of le dire et le dit (‘the saying and the said’)[13] in my approach to cinematic language:

 

In academic life the said is often privileged over the saying. What is important is that meaning is communicated and the way it is communicated is only important insomuch as it gets the meaning across (analytic philosophy and scientific discourse are interesting examples of this). Yet there are forms of communication that give emphasis to the saying over and above the said.[14]

 

I wanted to take an approach to film semiotics that would privilege form (the saying) over narrative (the said), rather than having all creative choices serve the meaning of the narrative alone. The aim of this was not simply to experiment with cinematic language for the sake of exploring film’s materiality (although that was also an objective), but as a means of implicating the viewer in the film’s emotional core. I therefore took an intuitive approach to editing that focused on creating visual poetry and deepening the viewer-text relationship rather than forming a coherent narrative (although narrative was not entirely absent).

 

With Ding Dong, I wanted to employ a similar approach – tapping into film’s poetic, lyrical side and asserting the experimental capacity of documentary form. In pre-production, my assumption was that the primary focus of my film in relation to my theoretical interests was going to be the concept of film as icon. In connection to my ongoing interest in the fusion of documentary and art film genres, I had hoped to borrow from techniques used by Bill Viola[15] and AJ Schnack and create what I referred to as ‘void spaces’ within the film, wherein the receptive spectator could reflect on the subject matter and perhaps enter into a visceral experience of the spirituality behind the film. Thus, although my film takes an experimental approach to film language, this radical eclecticism serves more of an authorial purpose rather than the iconic emphasis I had considered.  It emphasizes a subjectivity that perhaps allows greater access to the subject matter for viewers, and complements the autobiographical element of the film. The use of the semiotic elements (such as the “collage” style of editing, the colour palette, cinematography and choice of locations) within the film emphasize my filtering sensibility, thus enhance character identification through which the viewer is invited into the documentary’s spiritual core. Thus, although there is arguably an iconic element to Ding Dong, the theoretical interest would lie primarily with the discussion of film as parable, due to its subjective component:

 

Most often in the documentary tradition, the world rather than the filtering sensibility [of the filmmaker] has taken precedence. But there is nothing inherent to the documentary endeavour that requires this to be so.[16]

 

In the future, I can see my film practice delving further into the exploration of the materiality of film, as this has been an ongoing interest of mine. The exploration of what visceral effect a filmmaker’s creative decision-making can produce in the viewer, and the possibilities of the creation of spiritual spaces through the medium of film, are areas I would love to explore. Art film and particularly the possibilities offered by variations in presentation present exciting opportunities for the development in my work as a filmmaker; for example, I would like to experiment with creating work to be presented as an installation. I am also very interested in blurring the lines between different forms and genres, as I began to explore in Ding Dong by introducing elements of self-portrait and experimental video to the documentary system.  This impulse is, in part, responsible for my enduring fascination with music videos – experimentation and a high level of focus on the materiality of film and video are prioritized in even the most commercial of ventures, and people who would not normally be interested in avant-garde video nevertheless have an appreciation for the artistic stimulus of a music video. Since this genre lends itself so willingly to the blurring of boundaries between different film forms, I wonder about the possibilities offered by fusing music video and documentary – or indeed, documentary/installation, music video/installation and, of course, art film/documentary, as I have already been exploring.

 

Thematically, I maintain an interest in theological/spiritual subject matter and would love to continue to make films about different aspects of Christianity, as it continues to fascinate me and provide me with a rich terrain of topical possibilities. The subjective approach seems to have proven itself to be the most fertile means of approaching this subject matter; when dealing with notions about ways of being in the world, people tend to relate better to narrative (as discussed in the section on parables). However, I would also like to explore a diverse range of other subject matter. As I have been discussing here, a film does not have to contain theological thematic material in order to have a spiritual core.

 

The experience of the holy cannot be programmed. It is a gift. [17]

 

Throughout my creative process, several questions continued to haunt me: how can I, as a filmmaker, make space for a spiritual dimension to my film through creative decision-making? Surely this can easily give way to the presumptuous notion that I can “make the Invisible visible, the Transcendent immanent, the Impalpable palpable”[18] – that I can somehow manufacture a religious experience? I found in the philosophy of Blaise Pascal a useful paradigm for a robust recognition of the importance of artistic endeavour while leaving space for both the uncontainable nature of spirituality and the insights of spectatorship theory.

 

Most people are familiar with the philosopher from the argument known as Pascal’s Wager, wherein he argues that when wagering one’s life for or against the existence of God, it is better to bet in favour of God’s existence, due to the potential positive outcome of living as though God exists and being right versus the relative insignificance of the outcome of being wrong. What interests me is not the argument itself (which has many problematic elements), but the underlying philosophy behind it. Unlike his modernist contemporaries, Pascal understood that it was not abstract theoretical debates that invite hierophany, but the placing of the individual into an environment wherein their spirituality is encouraged to flourish:

 

While Pascal believed that the evidence of creation and the human psyche point towards the reasonableness of Christianity, he understood that this is not relevant. What is important is that people join the religious community and engage in the rituals. This acting as if it were true was not, for Pascal, authentic Christianity, and it did not guarantee that the miracle of faith would take place. But he reasoned that it was the best place to invite this miracle.[19]

 

Translated into the creative process, this means that my creative decisions are not responsible for producing spiritual movement or response. However, they can help create an environment in which such an effect is encouraged in the responsive viewer.

 

The exploration of the relationship between film and theology will therefore be fundamentally a practical one, not simply something I explore through theoretical discourse; just as my spirituality is not simply a theoretical construct but something to be experienced, my inquiry into the relationship between cinema and the divine will be best explored through trial and error and risk, based on my own subjective experience and observation as well as experimentation in creative practice. This synthesis of theory, creative practice and my own approach to film viewing represents, for me, a very exciting prospect.


[1] Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2008) [DVD]. AJ Schnack (director). USA: Sidetrack Films.

[2] 13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009) [DVD]. Andy Warhol (director). UK: Plexifilm.

[3] This phenomenon has been well-documented by Dave Tomlinson (2003)

[4] Johnston (2007: 23)

[5] Luke 8:8 (New International Version)

[6] Chesterton, G.K. (1908) Orthodoxy. Chicago, Moody Publishers.

[7] Cray, Graham (2010) ‘An introduction by Graham Cray’. Fresh Expressions [online]. Available: http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/about/introduction. Last accessed 14th September 2010.

[8] Lynch, Gordon (2007) ‘Film and the Subjective Turn: How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 123

[9] Marsh (2004: 131)

[10] Stanton Guion (2008: 15)

[11] Peacocke, John (1998) ‘Heidegger and the Problem of Onto-Theology’, in Blond, Phillip (ed.) (1998) Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology. London, Routledge: 180

[12] Gimmler, Antje (2003) ‘The Discourse Ethics of Jurgen Habermas’. Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Philosophy [online]. Available: http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/Forum/ meta/background/agimmler.html. Last accessed 1st September 2010.

[13] Levinas, Emmanuel (1974) Otherwise than Being: Or, Beyond Essence. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

[14] Rollins, Peter (2008) ‘Did Jesus Speak Hoplandic?’. PeterRollins.net [online]. Available: http://peterrollins.net/blog/?p=18. Last accessed: 24th March 2009.

[15] Hatsu Yume (First Dream) (2006) [DVD]. Viola, Bill (director). USA: EAI.

[16] Renov, Michael (2007) ‘Away from Copying: The Art of Documentary Practice’, in Pearce, Gail & McLaughlin, Cahal (2007) Truth or Dare: Art and Documentary. Bristol, Intellect Books: 14

[17] Johnston (2003: 161)

[18] Anker, Roy M. (2004) Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: 5

[19] Rollins, Peter (2008a) The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. London, SPCK Publishing: 159

 

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: http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html. 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: https://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/mediacarta. 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: http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Guion%20David%20Stanton.pdf?osu1210694707. Last accessed 28th September 2010: 103

[17] Lynch (2005: 185)

[18] Caughlin, Paul (2000) ‘Sublime Moments’. Senses of Cinema [online]. Available: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/11/sublime.html. Last accessed 20th September 2010.

[19] Caughlin (2000)

 

Film & Theology

In the grand tradition of shameless self-promotion and content-laziness for which this blog is famed, I will be posting my MA dissertation in series over the next couple of posts. I definitely don’t think it’s my best work, but considering the lack of development within the field I think I did okay…

‘For Those with Ears to Hear’: Maturing the Dialogue Between Film and Theology

Abstract

This study engages in an analytical exploration of the emerging conversation between film and theology. The dialogue thus far has shown much promise; however, it has remained firmly rooted within the domain of theology and has yet to break into widespread discussion within the largely secular domain of film studies. This, I will argue, may lead the discussion to stagnate out of insularity.

In order to remedy this problem and mature the discussion, this dissertation suggests ways in which the debate can be galvanized to operate out of a basis of film studies rather than theology; the rising level of interest in post-secularism within broader streams of academia seems to propose new alignments of priorities that could lead to theology being picked up by film studies as a valid conversation-partner. Emergence Christianity, a new stream of theology influenced by postmodernism represent an ideal conversation-partner for the post-secular academy, which will need to be met with a theology that is both self-aware and culturally astute.

After elucidating the parallel streams of academic thought that may allow this development to take place, I engage in a creative exploration of two potential avenues of study that may prove to be extremely rich terrain as theology emerges as a discourse within film studies – film as parable and film as icon. Through the case studies of Park Chan-Wook’s Lady Vengeance and Bill Viola’s The Passing, I demonstrate ways in which film scholars can engage with filmic texts theologically. Both paradigms suggested are models of spirituality rooted in ancient mysticism that are in the process of being rediscovered in the wake of postmodernism.

Finally, my interest in the film-theology dialogue is considered in terms of how it has influenced my own work as a film practitioner. I also submit several recommendations and ensuing implications regarding how the dialogue could progress once it enters post-secularism and the domain of film studies.


Introduction

Since the early 1980s[1], an ever-increasing number of books have been published with the aim of establishing film as a conversation partner for theology and religious studies. Yet the language and syntax of the majority of these publications betray a certain bias; almost every scholar takes the discipline of theology as their starting point and seeks to integrate film/cultural studies into the discourse. A definitive edited volume, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline[2], is tellingly funded by an institute of Fuller Theological Seminary. Gordon Lynch’s Understanding Theology and Popular Culture[3] contains three sizeable chapters explaining different approaches to analysing popular culture, betraying an assumption that his target audience is unlikely to be well versed in cultural studies.

My interest lies in furthering the conversation’s development in the opposite direction – in exploring the possibilities afforded by introducing theology to a film studies basis. Academic writing from this perspective has thus far been thin on the ground; I believe, along with several key theorists such as Slavoj Zizek[4], Terry Eagleton[5] and Stanley Fish, that this is about to change:

When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.[6]

Fish is not alone in his conjecture about “the return to the theological in our time”[7]. In the aftermath of the failure of modernity’s coherent metanarrative, postmodern critique of the Enlightenment quest for unadulterated reason is leading to a growth in interest in the theological within academia, particularly within the domain of philosophy[8], and yet philosophical enquiry is not the only domain to experience this new direction:

In a postmodern era more and more scholars are challenging the boundary between faith and knowledge, acknowledging the importance of religion as a social phenomenon and as a way of knowing. Articles on the return of religion can be found in a dozen disciplines, including art, English, philosophy, music, political science, social work, medicine, history, and sociology.[9]

If current trends continue, I submit that other areas of scholarship will not remain untouched by post-secularism, including film studies. A burgeoning interest in theological discussion among film scholars would seem to be the most expedient vehicle for the development of the film-theology dialogue in the direction of placing a greater emphasis on film studies and cultural theory.

The Dialogue So Far – Strengths and Weaknesses

Thus far, the film-theology dialogue has been firmly rooted within the domain of theology. The emphasis has been limited to how film can be used within and as the servant of theology; this applies as much to amateur contributions to the conversation (for example, when churches use films as sermon illustrations[10]) as to academic discourse on the subject[11] (such as when film is used as a means to the end of illustrating theological concepts such as atonement, redemptive violence[12] and gospel narratives[13]). Great strides have been made in recent years to complexify and broaden the dialogue beyond its preliminary concerns – for instance, Clive Marsh succinctly and effectively underlines fourteen theses which he sees as primary concerns for the debate at this point[14], and elsewhere there have been calls to extend the conversation-partners within the debate including interreligious dialogue[15], as well as to broaden the selection of cinema under discussion[16]. Lynch’s volume[17] assembles key aims and methods which scholars have had little time to discuss before. These kinds of clarifications and questions are vital at this stage in the discipline’s life.

Nevertheless, there is great potential to be found in the inverse approach – using theology as a servant to film theory. However, issues of theology, religion and spirituality have remained relatively untouched by film theorists. This is primarily to do with a credibility gap concerning how religion is viewed in broader streams of academia.

Tomorrow: Post-secularism and emergence Christianity


[1] Johnston, Robert K. (2007b) ‘Introduction: Reframing the Discussion’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 15

[2] Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.

[3] Lynch, Gordon (2005) Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, Blackwell Publishing.

[4] Žižek, Slavoj (2009) ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press: 24-109

[5] Eagleton, Terry (2009) Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. London, Yale University Press.

[6] Fish, Stanley (2005). ‘One University Under God?’. Available: http://chronicle.com/article/One-University-Under-God-/45077. Last accessed 10th January 2010.

[7] Davis, Creston (2009) ‘Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate’, in Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 2-23

[8] For example: Caputo, John (2007) What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic; Davis, Creston (ed.) (2009a) The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, The MIT Press.

[9] Mahoney, Kathleen and Schmalzbauer, John (2005) ‘Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy’. Purdue University Indianapolis [online]. Available: http://www.iupui.cedu/~raac/downloads/Essays/Schmalzbauer.pdf. Last accessed 14th September 2010.

[10] See, for example: Mars Hill Church (2010) ‘Film and Theology’. Available: http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/cinemagogue. Last accessed 24th September 2010; Missiongathering (2010) ‘God in Film: The Hurt Locker’. Available: http://itunes.apple.com/podcast/missiongathering-christianity/id164303465. Last accessed 24th September 2010.

[11] See eg. Graham, David John (1997) ‘The Uses of Film in Theology’, in Marsh, Clive and Ortiz, Gaye (eds.) (1997) Explorations in Theology and Film. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 35-44

[12] Eg. The discussion of The Shawshank Redemption in Marsh (2004: 45-59)

[13] Seay, Chris and Garrett, Greg (2003) The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix. Colorado Springs, Piñon Press.

[14] Marsh (2004)

[15] Lyden, John (2007) ‘Theology and Film: Interreligious Dialogue and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 205-218

[16] Ortiz, Gaye (2007) ‘World Cinema: Opportunities for Dialogue with Religion and Theology’, in Johnston, Robert K. (ed.) (2007a) Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 73-87

[17] Lynch (2005)


Process and breakthrough

So, as quick a catch-up as is humanly possible: over the summer I finished my MA (I got a distinction, by the way!), moved into a beautiful new house with two awesome girls, acquired a whole bunch of new jobs (currently at four) and had the prospect of doing a fully-funded PhD waved tantalisingly before me. So, I’m at a rather interesting stage in my life at the moment. And by interesting, I mean actually rather tough. I thought finishing my masters would equal lots of free time – definitely not. I have to work every hour God sends to keep my head above water financially, having racked up five years’ worth of student overdraft and debt, one of my jobs in particular is stress-a-licious, then when I get home from work I feel like all I do is clean or sort more stuff out. I have a whole list of people I need to catch up with, and no time to get around to actually doing so.  Yet, I have a funny feeling God is doing something very significant with me – something to do with refining, strengthening and character-building. For a start, I’m doing some repentance for the way I treated my parents’ house like a hotel – I feel like I suddenly understand mum and dad when they say it feels like all they ever do is housework, and on the odd occasion when I have to pick up after one of my housemates I am reminded of how my parents had to pick up after me constantly throughout the day, every day I lived in their house!

Anyway I had to share this video from Kris Vallotton as it pretty much sums up what God’s doing with me at the moment. I’m chipping away at my workplace – kingdom-wise – and chipping away at lots of other things God’s having me pray into, and I’m in limbo at the moment waiting for breakthrough. Meanwhile I’m learning a lot and getting stronger every day. I feel like a completely different person than I was a mere few months ago, and I’m going deeper with God…watch this space…

Woah…

As I said in my last blog post, I got a new job recently. That, my friends, is why I have been uncharacteristically absent from the blogosphere; they’ve put me on full-time hours, me who has my final masters piece to hand in in less than two months. It’s not quite as awesome as I led y’all to believe – let’s just say I’ve worked some bullshit jobs before, but at least they all paid minimum wage…

In the precious little time I’ve had to actually work on my editing, this is a little snippet of what I’ve been up to: