September 15, 2005
Altered States and Critical Transgressions in the Cinema
-- Joshua Yumibe
The relation between religion and cinema has a complex history whose roots lie in iconoclasm, and which can be traced from the censorship debates that shaped the emerging industry in the 1900s to more recent disputes stirred by the works of Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson, and late Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Not only a source of controversy, the cinema has also been used since its inception for explicitly religious ends: Passion Play films have been screened in religious services since the end of the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest collectors of films was the Catholic priest Joseph Joye, who acquired some 2,500 film prints throughout the 1900s for his parish in Basel, Switzerland. And of course, various other religious groups have made use of the medium throughout its history. The Hauka cult of West Africa, for instance, attempted a collaboration with ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch in 1955 to produce Les maîtres fous for use in its trance rituals.
Tuesdays this fall at 6:00 p.m., the Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago is hosting a weekly screening series, The Religious Imagination in Cinema: Altered States & Sacred Blasphemies, organized and with introductory lectures by Jeffrey Skoller, Associate Professor of the Department of Film/Video/New Media at the School of the Art Institute. In curating this series, Skoller has provocatively sidestepped the explicit history of religion and cinema outlined above to engage a different set of questions.
Taking the cultural context of modernity as the mediating factor, Skoller poses an alternative approach to religion and cinema. If the structural transformations of modernity in the last few centuries have broadly reshaped the ways one might understand the religious, how have specific filmmakers used cinema, a quintessentially modern medium, to explore what might be construed as religious in modern times? Additionally, how has this exploration of the religious through cinema led particular filmmakers to experiment with and innovate the formal means and styles of expression in the cinema?
Skoller's use of the "religious" here is purposely broad and ambiguous, designating unverifiable beliefs, intuitions, and feelings; transcendence; and the ineffable. While the thematic rubrics of the screening schedule lend his approach greater specificity (e.g., "Transformation," "Transgression," "Ritual and Time"), this series is not a program of religious messages in film, at least not in the reductive way such series are often conceived. Rather, Skoller views the religious as a historical category, and his interest lies in what the cinema might reveal about the changing experience of the religious in modern society. The films have thus been selected to explore, define, and challenge what a modern religious imagination might be.
More often than not, what can be understood as religious in these films pushes beyond obvious themes, symbols, and narratives. Rather, the films explore the religious at the level of their form. In Bruce Baille's short, one-shot film All My Life (1966), for instance, Ella Fitzgerald's warm voice fills the soundtrack while the camera slowly tracks left along a picket fence adorned in red flowers and green shrubs on a bright summer day; then it tilts up, over the fence, leaving behind the earth, filling the frame with blue sky. Two simple movements in a simple film, but one that is nonetheless profound (much like concrete poetry, as Skoller notes). It presents to the viewer an experience of the material world, its colors and contours. The lateral movement of the camera inches one across this space; the vertical launches one above it -- a transcendental moment, no doubt, but significantly, one in which the senses are not surmounted. The luminous blue of the sky fills the image, the screen, the theater, and the eye. If this can be construed as a religious moment, it is a physical one, a sensual one.
Thus the cinema offers a profoundly affective, aesthetic experience to the religious imagination, engaging the body and its senses. Indeed, many of these films provide transformative experiences of the everyday, attempting to reawaken our senses to that which they have become numbed to by modernized society. From this physical power of the cinema comes one of the series' subtitles, "altered states," under which one could group a number of the films, such as Hindle's Watersmith and Brakhage's Sirius Remembered.
However, what affects the body can also manipulate it, and a second group of films explores this area of "sacred blasphemies." Several of these transgressive works, such as Buñuel's L'age d'or, Pasolini's La Ricotta, and Godard's Hail Mary, critique the religious, political, and aesthetic abuse of bodies. With many of these films -- and this is one conceptual provocation of the series -- the question remains open: Do they seek to critique and obliterate, or rather to reconfigure the religious within modernity?
For details about the screening schedule for The Religious Imagination in Cinema and other information about the Gene Siskel Film Center, visit: http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/.
Joshua Yumibe is a Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.